Fifteen for Fifteen

In celebration of its 15th anniversary, the IMDb has invited its editorial staff to submit their Top 15 Lists: 1990-2005. Never one to pass up an opportunity to obsess for a few days over such a challenge, I’ve put together a list of my own — a list joyfully free of editorial imposition, meaning that I can stretch and/or ignore even the most basic criteria/rules. For instance, my Top 15 includes close to 30 films. Got a problem with that? Fine. Go start your own website. Also, I’ve limited my list to only feature-length narrative films.

So here they are. Alphabetized by the name of the director.

Bottle Rocket / Magnolia (Wes Anderson and PT Anderson, respectively) — See? I warned you about the whole “rules” thing. These two films get to share a slot because they’re both by American writer/directors of roughly the same age, who seem to have been shot out of the womb with distinct cinematic voices. Also, they’re both refreshingly sympathetic to the flawed humanity of their characters. And they’re both named Anderson. So it makes perfect sense, really. Two years ago I would have put Rushmore on the list, but I now prefer Wes Anderson at his least precious. PT Anderson, it seems to me, is at his core a moralist, and Magnolia is his most unapologetically moralizing film. It’s also big and messy and ambitious in a way that brings me great pleasure.

Saraband (Ingmar Bergman) — My favorite Bergman films are, almost without exception, the first of his that I saw. His voice is so clear, so penetrating, that one can’t help but be shaken a bit upon first hearing it. But that effect wanes with time — it has for me, at least. I was beginning to doubt my general enthusiasm for Bergman, in fact, until seeing Saraband, which joins Cries & Whispers, Winter Light, and Through a Glass Darkly on my very short list of favorites. Also, Saraband is a representative (of sorts) for the many filmmakers who, over the past decade-and-a-half, have made remarkable films in their later years. After catching up with the many, many films I haven’t yet seen, I can imagine adding works by Godard, Rohmer, Resnais, Chabrol, Rivette, etc. to future revisions of this list. Here’s my one-sentence review of Saraband: I’m so glad that Bergman’s film career faded-to-black accompanied by Bach.

Beau Travail / L’Intrus (Claire Denis) — If marooned on an island with only the post-1990 films of a single director, I’d take Claire Denis’s. Beau Travail and L’Intrus are my favorites, I think, because they’re located in relatively “manly” worlds (the French foreign legion, the final days in the life of a regret-filled playboy), but it’s a masculine world transformed by Denis’s subjective camera. She and her cinematographer, Agnes Godard, have this uncanny ability to make nature strange and new just by looking at it, and I can’t get enough of that view. (L’Intrus, by the way, is finally coming to DVD on December 5th.)

La Promesse / The Son (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne) — Speaking of moralists. I was raised with the stories of the Old Testament and the parables of Christ like most kids are raised with Disney (I had my share of Disney, too, of course). I love these two films because they defamiliarize Biblical ethics. Watch The Son, then let’s talk about grace and vengeance and pride and mercy.

La Vie de Jesus / L’Humanite (Bruno Dumont) — I’ve written enough about these two films.

Calendar / Exotica / The Sweet Hereafter (Atom Egoyan) — Is any contemporary filmmaker more frustrating that Atom Egoyan? I love these films, all three of which are dramatic, well-acted, formally inventive, intellectually rigorous, and, finally, human. Each of his other films fails on one or more of those counts — some disastrously so. I wonder if it’s fair to classify Egoyan as a post-colonial artist. I like him best when he’s preoccupied by questions of identity, memory, and trauma.

Good Men, Good Women / Cafe Lumiere (Hou Hsiao-hsien) — When selecting a Hou film, I finally just settled on the two that I most connect with on a purely subjective, personal level. As with Denis, I’m drawn to Hou because of the unique way he looks at the world. Any number of directors could setup a medium-long shot of, say, a young woman drinking tea, but Hou’s will always be instantly identifiable. I swear it’s a kind of magic.

Dead Man (Jim Jarmusch) — Over the past two months, I’ve watched all but two of Jarmusch’s films (Permanent Vacation and Night on Earth are the exceptions). I enjoyed all of them for more or less the same reasons: his preference for people over plot (you’ve gotta love a jailbreak film that elides the jailbreak), his casting of charismatic personas (Tom Waits, John Lurie, and Iggy Pop are just so cool), and his collaborations with high-callibre cinematographers like Robby Muller and Frederick Elmes. Dead Man is a different animal entirely, though. Along with being one of the most beautiful films I’ve ever seen — and its beauty alone would get it on this list — Dead Man is one of those fables that grows more rich and complex the more I think about it. Is this a vision of heaven or hell? And whose heaven? Whose hell?

Close-Up / Ten (Abbas Kiarostami) — I like Kiarostami best when he’s playing with form. My favorite part of Taste of Cherry is the last five minutes, when he reminds us we’re watching a movie. My favorite part of The Wind Will Carry Us is that long shot of the engineer driving out of town to make a phone call — the shot that returns again and again throughout the film, each time making you think, “Surely he’ll cut this time. Surely he won’t make us watch this again.” Close-Up and Ten do things filmmakers are not supposed to do. You’re not supposed to blend documentary and fiction. You’re not supposed to set up a camera in a car and leave the actors to their own devices. Kiarostami breaks the rules and makes smart and emotionally-rich films anyway. So much for the rules.

Eyes Wide Shut (Stanley Kubrick) — Like everyone else, I had been waiting eagerly for nearly a decade to see what Kubrick was up to. And like everyone else, I wasn’t sure at first what to make of this film. I still don’t, really. It’s such a strange film, so full of mystery and consciously-suppressed emotion. I also think it’s incredibly sad — tragic, even.

Dazed and Confused (Richard Linklater) — If Denis’s films were unavailable, I’d probably take Linklater’s with me to the island. I’d never be lonely, for sure. Linklater’s the great egalitarian filmmaker, a humanist with a palpable respect for all of the characters who wonder in and out of his films. I could easily have gone with the Before Sunrise/Sunset films or Waking Life, but Dazed and Confused is my favorite. It’s funny and honest in a way that no other “teen comedy” can touch. And I never seem to tire of watching it.

The Thin Red Line (Terrence Malick) — Only Terrence Malick would take a James Jones novel and turn it into Walden. That a war is going on is important to the film, of course, but the battles seem almost insignificant compared to those shots of wind blowing through tall grass.

What Time is It There? (Tsai Ming-liang) — This is my favorite of Tsai’s films simply because it’s the one that most moves me.

In the Bathtub of the World (Caveh Zahedi) — I stumbled into Zahedi’s films after being mesmerized by the “Holy Moments” sequence in Waking Life. If all goes as planned, I should have a better idea next week of why I like this particular film so much. I’ll post the essay when it’s finished.

I can’t decide what to put in the 15th slot. Maybe Todd Haynes’s Safe or Kieslowski’s Blue or Haneke’s Code Unknown or Kore-eda’s After Life or Sokurov’s Russian Ark. Or maybe a guilty pleasure like The Usual Suspects or Dark City. I can’t decide. Too many choices.