Every contender for a “best-of” list should be seen more than once. First impressions aren’t always what they’re cracked up to be. And if you care about accuracy and fairness, films not commercially distributed should be given as much consideration as widely available ones. As I was unable to view all of my “contenders” multiple times, I can’t pronounce ten best. So I offer here some of the most accomplished, original and enjoyable films of the ‘00s, eight of which I saw twice.
I doubt Sam Green’s short documentary Lot 63, Grave C (2006), about the forgotten victim of a notorious murder, could have been more hard-hitting at feature length. Focusing on archival material and a kind-hearted cemetery caretaker, Green expertly structures minimal material to craft a lament for Meredith Hunter, the young man who was murdered on camera at the Rolling Stones’ Altamont concert in 1969.
Pat O’Neill conducts a multi-layered orchestra of images with a decades-old optical printer in Horizontal Boundaries (2008); his unsurpassed mastery of labour-intensive pre-digital effects is tempered by his wonderful sense of cinematic humour, often played out through sound/image relationships. With Instructions for a Light and Sound Machine (2005), Peter Tscherkassky has created an electrifying experience and a challenge to cinema itself. Employing a simple light source, found footage and no camera he reveals multiple competing actions from a Sergio Leone western, creating new collisions and meanings between dueling men and machines.
Unlike their more strenuously monumental brethren, subtle, intimate films with lifelike pacing and common themes leave me thankful and energized, rather than traumatized and exhausted. Chronicling the daily life and personal struggles of a family of sheepherders, Sergei Dvortsevoy’s Tulpan (2008) has the most striking “choreographed” long takes I’ve seen in ages. Play Pause (2007) by Sadie Benning brings alive the everyday in an urban neighbourhood with the barest of elements; her dual-screen montage of simple drawings feels like a private masterpiece.
The ever-so-common theme of love seems to have risen from the dead. Jane Campion’s Bright Star (2009) exemplifies the self-doubts of artists—and that much-abused adage “burning with desire”—without the trappings of most biopics, those bombastic life stories on fast forward. In Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s recreation of his parents’ first meeting, Syndromes and a Century, the two-part structure eloquently embodies young love and the fantasies we call memory. In Laida Lertxundi’s Footnotes to a House of Love (2007), the compositions of lovers in the sun and a desert house suggest the edge between film’s off- and onscreen space, appropriately tantalizing.
When filmmakers’ inventive works derive from personal experience, the generosity of emotional honesty and risk can help a viewer let down their own guard. Jeanne Liotta’s years-long 16mm meditation on the night skies Observando el cielo (2007) gives us a minimal yet vast space to have our own existential experience. Water, skin, and a red umbrella make your heart sink in Leighton Pierce’s Viscera (2005), his ephemeral meditation on a loved one’s absence. Phil Solomon’s Last Days in a Lonely Place (2007) evokes a quiet and solitary experience of contemplating death, miraculously enough with the “cutaways” of a violent video game.
Not only is Persepolis (2007) by Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud one of the most accomplished recent animation films, but Satrapi’s story of growing up under one of the world’s most repressive and misogynist regimes is also one of film’s most affecting portraits of a family’s conflicts, sorrows and devotion. Another great animation of the decade is Martha Colburn’s subversive, experimental Cosmetic Emergency (2008).
I mostly prefer formally inventive and/or patient films that leave my consciousness intact while I watch them, but I also love a good escape. Unrivaled as a nail-biting thriller, The Orphanage (2007) by Juan Antonio Bayona also has one of the most convincing depictions of parents coping with the loss of a child, and of the child-mother bond. (Why must there be a Hollywood remake of this perfect film?) Other superb fiction films from the last decade are Whale Rider (2002), Mysterious Skin, Eugène Green’s Le pont des Arts (both 2004), The Host, Pan’s Labyrinth, The Science of Sleep (all 2006), The Edge of Heaven, Lust, Caution, Eastern Promises, and There Will Be Blood (all 2007).
Jennifer Reeves is a New York-based filmmaker. Her films include The Time We Killed and When It Was Blue (2008).
Bright Star, Grave C, Horizontal Boundaries, House of Love