The Back Row Manifesto's Incredibly Personal, Completely Subjective List of the Best Films of The Decade (2000-2009) will be unveiled over the course of the month of December. Think of it as a sort of misguided advent calendar without the little chocolate surprises. Either way, thanks for reading and please check back every day over the next few weeks for the full list. The introduction to the list can be found here.
Lukas Moodysson’s shattering look at the world of sexual slavery, Lilya 4-Ever is the director’s best film, a heart-breaking examination of the corruption of the modern European soul. Unlike the terrifically fun Fucking Amal and Together, both heartfelt (and often funny) examinations of the way in which unsustainably idealistic institutions (adolescence, the hippie commune) inadvertently collapse against the weight of human need, Lilya 4-Ever marked the high point and the turning point for Moodysson’s cinema, a trip to the dark side of political and personal meaning from which he has never fully recovered. I can’t write a history of the man, nor can I read into the experience of writing and making his films (having no access to his process), but for me, Moodysson’s work coming after the experience of making Lilya 4-Ever has been relentlessly angry, bleak and harrowing and, while not without their powerful, even beautiful moments, none of the films (A Hole In My Heart, Container and Mammoth) carry the power of innocence and hopelessness that are the heartbeat of Lilya 4-Ever.
Watching the film, it is easy to imagine how this story could break a director in two. Lilya is the story of a young girl, abandoned by her parents in Estonia and duped into traveling to Sweden by a “boyfriend” who promises her a better life only to find herself imprisoned as a sexual slave. If the film were simply a catalogue of the violence and brutality of Lilya’s victimization, it would perhaps only seem a meaningful document of an otherwise underreported and painful social problem, but Moodysson doubles the emotional impact of the film by allowing Lilya’s wrenching and obviously unattainable fantasy to impact another life, that of a young boy named Volodya, who suffers alongside Lilya, a familiar for her pain. The relationship between Volodya and Lilya is one of the great love stories of the screen, nothing but pure devotion and fraternity between two unlikely friends and companions. It also lends the film its poetry and its “spiritual” (and I mean that in the Bressonian sense) dimension, allowing scenes between the pair, especially the final scene they share, to beautifully expresses what is truly at stake in the story; the death of innocence, yes, but also the end of possibility, of hope. No image has ever felt as tragic to me as the moment in this film when Volodya appears to Lilya with a pair of little white wings, and while some may decry the conventionality of the pair’s reunion, it never, ever fails to move me.
Its power to bring people to tears aside, I also think that shot was one of the last conciliatory gestures Moodysson ever made to his audience, and for me, someone who has watched each of the director’s films and followed his path away from his instinctive poetry and compassion for his characters toward something perhaps larger and more honest, I miss what Moodysson found in Together and perfected in Lilya 4-Ever, the ability to find the truth not in repulsion but in the cinema’s sometimes dark embrace. As the world seemed to grow harder and more violently in denial of the conditions being created in the name of international “growth”, it’s hard to fault Moodysson for growing up, for wanting to engage the ugly truths about the world head-on. But while the world is full of people shouting about the truth, it is short of real poets and for this one moment, this great film, Lukas Moodysson was able to harness the power of cinema to expose injustice and find deep wells of beauty and truth at the same time. We need much more of this in the decades and centuries ahead of us.
Lilya 4-Everby Lukas Moodysson
23. Quiet City by Aaron Katz
22. Mutual Appreciation by Andrew Bujalski
21. Frownland by Ronald Bronstein
20. Marie Antoinette by Sofia Coppola
19. Up The Yangtze by Yung Chang
18. Platform by Jia Zhang-Ke
17. Tarnation by Jonathan Caouette