Best Films of the 2000s – Master Class

As the Cannes line-up—led by the 20 films in competition for the
Palme d’Or—was announced last week, it got me thinking about why
those critics who show up on the French Riviera and crowd into the
Théâtre Lumière to write reviews get a little bit more
enthusiastic and a little less curmudgeonly every May. Sure, the sun and sand
and some fine films probably lighten their mood, but there’s also
plenty of junkets and Euro-hype and duds. Maybe it’s because Cannes,
even in its awards gala at the end of its 10 days, unlike the Oscars and
other prize-based excuses for “celebrating cinema,” continues to
emphasize the director. That sense of the auteur still excites film-lovers,
probably in part because it makes a seemingly more legitimate star out of an
actual creator, instead of one of those actors always being snapped or
interviewed or gossiped about:

Many of the veteran directors in competition this year came of age in the
’90s: Jane Campion, Quentin Tarantino, Lars von Trier, Michael Haneke,
Gaspar Noé, Elia Suleiman, Ang Lee, Tsai Ming-liang.

But what about those feature-film directors who’ve been top of the
class this decade? There’s lots of A-1 auteurs to mention:
England’s Ken Loach (for Sweet Sixteen and The Wind That Shakes The
Barley) and Paul Greengrass (for United 93 and reanimating the
action-thriller with the second and third Bourne films), even Iranian master
Abbas Kiarostami (for the loaded car conversations of Ten alone). And Belgian
mini-fraternity Jean-Luc and Paul Dardenne released three subtly different
studies of the underclass in Liège—the grief-struck relationship
between a carpenter and parolee, the naïve love between a young woman
and a street thief, the arranged marriage of an Albanian immigrant and
Russian mobster—but all shot in their intimate, immediate filming
style. (The third, Lorna’s Silence, has yet to be released over here:

The Dardennes, along with two other directors, in their attention to culture
clashes and the work world, captured better than any auteur the zeitgeist of
much the decade, with all its paranoid, masking “war on terror”
and then the economic meltdown. Austria’s Michael Haneke, usually
working in France now, surged from Code Unknown (2000) to Time of the Wolf
three years later, pausing in-between for the disturbing adaptation of
Nobel-winning Elfriede Jelinek’s feminist, sado-masochistic novel The
Piano Teacher (2001). Caché, though, remains his masterpiece, a
slow-burning thriller that wrenches viewers out of their comfort zone with
shifts between subjective and objective POVs in a steadily growing indictment
of the middle-class values behind wars on “terrorists” and a
culture’s self-justifying historical amnesia:
Only a US-based remake of his own late ’90s film, Funny Games,
didn’t have critics playing along. (His latest, The White Ribbon, a
black-and-white film set in a German school in 1913, debuts at Cannes in a
few weeks.)

France’s Laurent Cantet is the other. His masterpiece, Time Out (2001),
finds a glassy Hitchcockian suspense in the self-deception of a man
(Aurélien Recoing) drifting through the corporate world, pretending
that he’s still employed. His next release, Heading South (2005), was
bound to pale in comparison, though it remains generally underrated and
unseen. Starring Charlotte Rampling, the film traces sexual and
post-colonialist tension in the casual relationships between privileged white
women tourists and the poor young native men offering their services on the
beaches of Haiti:
And then there was last year’s The Class, Palme d’Or winner and a
lovely (though I found it a little overpraised by critics and not quite
expansive enough) documentary-style look at a classroom, slowly chalking up
the incredibly subtle, complex power dynamics between teacher and student
that develop over 10 months.

But it’s two other directors with even surer touches who I think go to
the head of the class for the 2000s—in particular a film from each that
caps off their A+s in my book.

England’s Mike Leigh may be both more and less auteur than any other
director around—his films bear his imprint, in their dialect-heavy and
often good-humoured look at English working lives, but his actors develop
much of their characters for weeks before finally shooting scenes they only
find out about on the day. That loose-limbed, natural,
strolling-along-with-this-character feel of his films is nowhere stronger
than in Happy-Go-Lucky (2008). Sure, it’s about happiness—perhaps
a bit surprising after his likely best film, All or Nothing (2002) and
’50s abortion drama Vera Drake (2004)—with vivacious steamroller
Poppy (a sparkling Sally Hawkins) always moving relentlessly forward in her
cheeriness. But it’s mostly a film about education.

Poppy’s a primary-school teacher, her general pleasantness either
defusing any tensions in a class where kids are young enough to not be
suspicious about such niceness, or being optimistically concerned enough to
bring in a social worker to deal with a bully. She herself has been educated,
by a sour sister and possibly, it’s implied, a generally rather
argumentative family, into seeing the darkness of the world her charges will
enter, but her smiling self isn’t a sunshiney-day coping strategy. She
goes out of her way for new experiences, sticking with a belligerent, racist
driving-instructor (a bilious Eddie Marsan) even risking a possible threat on
her comfortable life when she talks to a rambling homeless man in a back

Poppy is a fascinatingly positive photo-negative of brooding Johnny in
Leigh’s Naked (1993):

Not that Poppy’s bouncy path is the way to go through life—as
Leigh himself notes in an interview included on the DVD—but it’s
a far more interesting approach than the usual guardedness we’ve come
to expect from our feature-film protagonists. And if we think the real threat
is that scruffy man or even Poppy’s poppiness, we’ve been blinded
by the apparent sweetness-and-light. The danger lies in our skepticism, our
wariness of such an open-hearted character, our concern she’ll be taken
advantage of. So the film slyly teaches us to be more thoughtful and less
uptight, more relaxed and less suspicious, or else we risk slipping a little
further down the road into territory.

Spain’s Pedro Almodóvar moved away from his campier, more comic
films of the ’90s into more self-reflexive, postmodern, sometimes
dreamlike, and yet utterly riveting stories, radically reawakening the
romance in Talk To Her (2002)—including an unforgettable dream-scene
that’s a fantastic take on Prince Charles’ crude imagining of
being truly taken in by Camilla—and the supernatural in Volver (2006):;
It’s a noir hall-of-mirrors that he takes us through in Bad Education
(2004), though, my favourite of his works this decade.

It likely offers more frames within frames, films within films and stories
within stories than any of his others, but its thriller-plot pulls it all
tightly together. Also seamlessly stretched are the limits of film noir, with
a pulpy opening-credit homage to Hitchcock and Hermman, lurid ’80s
colours instead of shadows, un-romantic squares instead of love triangles,
and a femme fatale who’s not as femme as she appears:
“I wanted to see how far you would go and how much I could take,”
says Enrique (Fele Martínez) to Ángel (Gael García
Bernal), but it’s impossible not to go all the way with this film,
about both acting out on and keeping in the film’s final word,
pasíon. And while we’re taught the magic malleability of the
noir, the characters’ education is in the school of viciously hard
knocks that life can dish out to defenceless children, in this case at the
hands of priests, a dark lesson at the heart of the film’s layers of
allusion, meta-ness and story.

The director’s superb streak is on the line again this year at Cannes,
with his latest, Broken Embraces, appearing on the Croisette. It’s
another Almodó-noir, apparently, only this time, after Bad Education,
he’ll have to outdo himself, not any old masters. V 

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