The Decade in Review | Thom Andersen

Okay, I have a fascination with lists: best of, worst of, whatever. I would even claim they’re useful as a quick sketch of history, revealing which films are remembered, which are forgotten. In Film Comment’s best-of-decade poll, for example, I was pleased to see that so many films I admired were remembered by others, and that east Asian cinema finally got the respect it deserves (14 films in the top 50 against 15 from the US). Wang Bing, Amir Muhammad, Lav Diaz, and Garin Nugroho should have placed higher, but their problem is first of all one of distribution.

Although American films still dominated the polls, these lists confirmed my conviction that American cinema is dying. Nostalgia for classic Hollywood cinema elevated a number of films—A History of Violence (2005), No Country for Old Men (2007), Million Dollar Baby (2004), etc.—that would have been regarded as routine programmers 60 or 70 years ago. These were models of well-made films that weren’t really well-made, with plots full of nonsensical contrivances, busily driving to nowhere. There is still some hope for American cinema in the messy movies, like Inland Empire (2006), as haunted and haunting as a nightmare, and Zodiac (2007), as meandering and inconclusive as life, which can stand comparison with the best messy experimental films of the decade, such as Ken Jacobs’ Star Spangled to Death (2004), Lee Anne Schmitt’s California Company Town and Deborah Stratman’s O’er the Land (both 2008).

Turning to the forgotten films, there was one striking case of critical amnesia in the round-up of decade’s-end lists: Iranian cinema. Kiarostami’s Ten placed at #60 on the FC poll, but what about the once-celebrated Jafar Panahi, Bahman Ghobadi, and the Makhmalbaf school? Iran is now a pariah state, thanks to willful ignorance and patently false propaganda, and apparently its filmmakers must be punished as well, even though in the first five years of this decade they created an exemplary critical cinema.

While the critical swooning over Mulholland Drive and In the Mood for Love (2000) indicated that we were evidently in the mood for melancholy love stories, we were certainly not willing to engage with anything that addresses the great social transformations of last decade. As the great theme of 20th century cinema was proletarianization, so the great theme of 21st century cinema (at least for its first decade, and probably for many years to come) is immigration—an issue that American filmmakers, with such honourable exceptions as Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (Sugar, 2008) and Bill Brown (The Other Side, 2006), botched completely. And while such exemplary films as Claire Denis’ 35 Rhums (2008), Julie Bertucelli’s Since Otar Left…(2003) and the Dardennes’ Le silence de Lorna (2008)—all sorely under-represented on the best-of-decade lists (though 35 Rhums made it to Film Comment’s #69)—attained at least some measure of critical recognition upon their release, the North American media tended to assign them to the rarefied (read: apolitical) stratum of “art cinema” while entirely excising the charged socio-political issue they directly engage with.

Meanwhile, the great crime of the decade—the American invasion of Iraq—saw the American cinema in particular admirably assuming the role inexcusably abdicated by television. The commercial failure of these movies (except Fahrenheit 9/11 [2004]) was widely celebrated; now the political philistines may rejoice over their critical failure. The only Iraq war movie to make the Film Comment top 100 was The Hurt Locker, the most cynical of them all—and maybe the most honest in its implicit suggestion that no Iraqi can be “USA-friendly.”

Conversely, the most notable filmmaker ignored by the FC poll was Michael Moore, the war’s most outspoken opponent. Moore’s exclusion indicates a remarkable, groupthought critical reassessment: now widely regarded as a simpleton and a demagogue, Moore’s films are actually too subtle for his critics, who apparently can’t distinguish the onscreen persona from the filmmaker. While the critically mauled Capitalism: A Love Story (2009) may be confused and incoherent, I think it is the most remarkable documentary of the decade—its oscillations between a revolutionary perspective and a reformist alternative express very precisely the dilemmas of the American left. Moreover, the opening sequence of bank robbery surveillance footage scored to an Iggy Pop version of “Louie Louie” is great termite art and great cinema.

Thom Andersen is the director of Los Angeles Plays Itself (#43 on the Film Comment poll).