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.
Few artists working today have the power to move my heart and my brain like Claire Denis. The breathless invention of her cinema seems to know no bounds, and she spent the decade leaping from one genre to another, re-defining each as she made her indelible mark on them; the spontaneous romance of a one night stand in Friday Night, the blood soaked vampire narrative of Trouble Every Day , the examination of class, power and paternal identity in L’Intrus, and the post-colonial condition in White Material her most recent film, set for release next year (and thus in the next decade) and bringing Denis full circle, back to a new Africa, one that seems light years away from the sun drenched expectations of Chocolat which launched her onto the international stage some twenty one years ago.
Bookending all of these tremendous movies, and there is truly not a film among them that I don’t love, Denis made two films in the 2000’s that believe are masterpieces, neither of which seems on the surface to have much in common with the other but both of which are transcendent examples of Denis’ genius; 2000*’s Beau Travail, her “adaptation” of Herman Melville’s Billy Budd and 2009’s 35 Shots Of Rum, a subtle and gorgeous story of a father and daughter facing personal transitions in their life together. Separated by the span of the decade, it is fascinating to think that the harsh and haunting Beau Travail came first and that, in the wake of such a difficult and politically challenging era in global politics, that 35 Shots Of Rum would be, in many ways, a summation of Denis’ commitment to humanism, but it is without question that this director lived through the same times we all did and still was able to come in like a lion and go out like a lamb.
For every line that has been written dissecting the decoding of masculine tropes and the homoeroticism of Beau Travail (and yes, it’s all there), the film refuses to play by the rules, forcing the audience to spend its time trying to relate to a character we revile, only to show us in the end that our revulsion is nothing compared with his need to break free from the constraints of his own desire. It is Denis Lavant’s performance as the despicable Galoup that defines the film, and his performance, coiled up like an angry snake against the backdrop of Djibouti’s white landscape, is both infuriating and oddly compelling. While Gregoire Colin’s perfectly formed body provides distraction for both the audience and Galoup, his portrayal of Gilles Sentain is compliant to Lavant’s will; Galoup dominates the screen and the narrative, providing the framework through which we see everything. When, in the film’s unforgettable final scene, he stands alone in a discotheque and begins to finally let go of the controls that lead him down the path of ruin, he literally spins himself out of control, his physical mastery as a broken man a haunting echo of every sun-soaked torso that has come before. Every shot in the film, every close-up and every scene, lends meaning to the dance floor, and only Denis and Lavant could pull off such a brilliant coup, putting an entire film together seemingly out of thin air, the pulse of the music dragging us deeper into Galoup’s personal hell.
Claire Denis' Beau Travail
For every thump of Beau Travail’s bass drenched finale, 35 Shots Of Rum counterpunches with its own exquisite and polar opposite musical moment; a group of lovers stuck in the rain heads into a café to avoid being soaked and, as the strains of Nightshift fill the room, we watch a community flowering right before our eyes. While 35 Shots Of Rum is ostensibly the story of a retiring train operator who is preparing to give his daughter away for marriage, it is much, much more than that: It is the story of a new kind of French nation, a new community of working class people coming together to create a simple, happy life for themselves. Denis avoids all of the sloganeering and “-isms” (sexism, racism, classism) that could be used to underline her film’s principled approach to the lives of working class characters, but instead she does what she has always done best, which is to explore their common humanity through brilliantly phrased drama. In 35 Shots Of Rum, the creation of a family meal is the source of dignified communion, a gathering of co-workers a celebration of pride that echoes the kind of camaraderie that long ago seemed to vanish from the American work place. Denis’ film feels almost exotic; a single father and his daughter without an ounce of dysfunction between them, each looking to do right in the world, each wanting to find love and happiness, and both of them successful because of their principles and love for one another.
Claire Denis' 35 Shots Of Rum
One final note; It goes without saying for me that if I were to compile a list of the greatest cinematographers of the past twenty years, Agnes Godard would be the first, last and only name on my list. The way she shoots movies sends me into fits of ecstasy, and her relationship with Denis’ style and material, the elliptical storytelling and the prowling way she accesses the faces of her actors for information about each and every moment, well, none of it would be the same without Godard’s sensibility in shooting the films. The magic between these two women will go down as one of the great collaborations in the history of cinema, and it seems impossible for me to imagine Denis’ work without looking at her stories through Godard’s lenses. I don’t know enough about how Denis’ films are made to know which portion of the credit lies where (although White Material, shot by frequent Bruno Dumont collaborator Yves Cape due to Godard’s pregnancy, retains much of the “feel” of Denis' work with Godard), but I can say that the push and pull of story and image, the natural synthesis of their sensibilities, all of it combines to create one of the most important bodies of work in the current cinema. Claire Denis makes incredible movies; she remains one of the few people working today who articulates a truly cinematic language, reinventing herself with each and every film. A decade is just a line drawn in sand. Where to next?
*Although Beau Travail was made in 1999, it opened theatrically in the USA in the spring of 2000, which is when I saw it and which qualifies it for my list. We’re playing loose with time anyway, no?
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
16. Lilya 4-Ever by Lukas Moodysson
15. Far From Heaven/ I'm Not There by Todd Haynes
14. Sideways by Alexander Payne
13. Into Great Silence by Philip Gröning
12. Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner by Zacharias Kunuk
11. There Will Be Blood by Paul Thomas Anderson
10. Zodiac by David Fincher