The Best Films of the 2000s

in-the-mood-for-love

The decade from the years 2000 to 2009 will always hold a special place in this writer’s heart. It was during this time that I came of age and discovered my own love of film. Though my tastes have changed considerably since the early years of my growing cinephilia, some of the very films that ignited this passion in me have remained significant in my mind – In the Mood for Love, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Spirited Away, and Lost in Translation. And, some I’ve only recently discovered for the first time, but they have moved me in ways I could have never expected – Werckmeister Harmonies, The Headless Woman, Platform, and The Intruder.

Now, with five years of this new decade behind us, I hoped to compile a list of my personal favorites from that decade. I found it too difficult to rank them, but Wong Kar-wai’s staggering In the Mood for Love is easily the film of the decade. I narrowed my list down to twenty, but couldn’t help including a long list of honorable mentions. There are films here from all over the world, from directors as disparate as seasoned veterans Hou Hsiao-hsien and Abbas Kiarostami to newcomers Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Lucrecia Martel. I anticipate the impact of these twenty films to last well into the decades to come, and each will always hold a special place in my own personal canon as works that influenced how I understand and approach cinema as art.


Before Sunset

Before Sunset (Dir. Richard Linklater, United States, 2004)

Cleverly shot to give the appearance of its story unfolding in real time, Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset brings actors Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy back nine years after his ode to youthfulness and bright futures that was his beloved Before Sunrise. In this sequel, fans of the first film are given an answer to its hopeful, yet ambiguous finale. Did Celine and Jesse meet up six months later as planned? Before Sunset answers no, but Linklater proves there’s much more for these one-time lovers to sift through. The pair has grown up – their concerns have changed, their paradigms have shifted, they’re a bit more jaded. But, isn’t that a lot like life? We change and we grow, sometimes for better and other times for worse. This follow-up, then, is a wholly unique experience that allows us to see how two characters we thought we knew so well change with the real passing of time.


Eternal Sunshine

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Dir. Michel Gondry, United States, 2004)

Postmodern screenwriting genius Charlie Kaufman teams up with talented music video director Michel Gondry to create this generation’s Annie Hall – a whip-smart spin on a tired Hollywood genre. Continuing the inventiveness of his wacky sci-fi set-ups, Kaufman injects his typically cold work with a welcome, warm emotional core with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Committed to practical special effects and an unbelievable premise – a company can erase painful memories of those customers would most like to forget – Gondry works wonders with Kaufman’s script directing a pair of outstanding leads in Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet who deliver career-high performances as the troubled lovers. Gondry takes us on a whirlwind trip through the mind and through memory, and in the end makes a convincing case that relationships are essential to life despite their inevitable difficulties.


Flight of the Red Balloon

Flight of the Red Balloon (Dir. Hou Hsiao-hsien, France/Taiwan, 2007)

Hou Hsiao-hsien’s recent fascination with modern urban living reaches its apex with his Paris-set Flight of the Red Balloon. Based on Albert Lamorisse’s popular short The Red Balloon and financed by the Musée d’Orsay, Hou’s film is also a delightful celebration of contemporary Parisian life filtered through the perspective of those whose stories are not often told: a single, working mother, her precocious son, and his nanny, a Taiwanese woman studying film in France. Together, the three rely on one another for friendship, security, and a place to call home. Hou’s always-evolving style finds him still favoring the long take but his camera moves constantly, gently bouncing along like the film’s titular candy-colored orb. The action of Hou’s elliptical narrative barely rises above a murmur, but Flight captivates nonetheless as he paints a very real portrait of modern day life.


Headless Woman

The Headless Woman (Dir. Lucrecia Martel, Argentina, 2008)

In Lucrecia Martel’s The Headless Woman, psychological decline directly corresponds to moral and societal decay. Superficially, Martel’s finest work yet recounts the story of one woman’s negligent car accident that may or may not have taken the life of a young boy, but with The Headless Woman subtext greatly overrules narrative. Martel affixes her camera to the film’s subject, intensely studies her behavior and gestures, and draws metaphorical parallels to the fallout of her accident and her bourgeois privilege. All the while, Martel demands our utmost attention to piece together this wondrously oblique narrative and arrive at our own conclusions as to what exactly happens when. Beneath this surface of exquisite framing and meticulous mise-en-scène, the film offers a glimpse of a woman subtly teetering on the verge of a mental breakdown, but in choosing not to absolve this subject of her possible, unintentional crime, Martel uncovers an unflattering human trait to distance ourselves from our own poor choices and their subsequent consequences.


In the Mood

In the Mood for Love (Dir. Wong Kar-wai, Hong Kong, 2000)

If film is defined as art in motion, a holy union of story, image, and sound, then Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love is not only the finest example of film as art from this decade, but it also stands as one of cinema’s greatest achievements ever. More than any other film on this list, Wong’s intimate portrait of unconsummated, forbidden love blends breathtaking aesthetic with a deeply felt narrative that commands our undivided attention. There’s rich beauty in the vibrant colors as Christopher Doyle’s camera delicately follows the two lonely souls at the center of the film and heart-wrenching strings that accompany every slow-motion stroll through the dimly lit alleyways of mid-century Hong Kong. Wong’s opus also represents the apex of his career-defining exploration of urban loneliness and personal longing as the film’s would-be lovers accept their fate as casualties of time itself.


Intruder

The Intruder (Dir. Claire Denis, France, 2004)

With The Intruder, Claire Denis bursts the tidy bubble of traditional narrative cinema with ferocious aplomb. Ever concerned with ambiguous storytelling in favor of minimal dialogue and contemplative visuals, Denis’ The Intruder is easily her most challengingly oblique work yet. No more than a few words are uttered throughout the entire film, and its loose narrative thread is nearly indecipherable upon first viewing. Instead, Denis continues her intimate exploration of the human mind via a visual fixation on the human body accompanied by a rush of non-linear images that blur narrative reality and imagination. To discern which pieces of the puzzle fit where, Denis’ film demands repeat viewings, but one gets the impression it’s likely never intended to be fully solved. There’s a transfixing mystery surrounding Denis’ work, one that clearly invites innumerable interpretations.


Memories of Murder

Memories of Murder (Dir. Bong Joon-ho, South Korea, 2003)

Bong Joon-ho has built his career on appropriating classic Hollywood genres into a modern South Korean context. His second film Memories of Murder is his police procedural. This first-rate crime saga’s grounding in the real world – with the disturbing real-life events that inspired it – lends an extra dose of horror to Bong’s film. And yet, what is perhaps most impressive about his sophomore feature – and his entire body of work for that matter – is Bong’s uncanny ability to oscillate between screwball comedy and heart-wrenching pathos within a matter of seconds. Bong’s film is refreshingly palatable, both an entertaining and visceral watch. Furthermore, Bong brilliantly courts familiar tropes of the genre – the collision of an urban and rural cop who must work together to solve the case, suspense-building thrills, jump scares, promising leads that turn to dead ends – yet none of them ever appears stale.


Mulholland Dr

Mulholland Drive (Dir. David Lynch, United States, 2001)

Thrillingly operating in a mode of absurdist dream logic, David Lynch’s nightmarish depiction of the dream factory that is Hollywood as a horror show brilliantly subverts our expectations of what fame and fortune promise. In Mulholland Drive, the entertainment industry’s capital city is unfit to nurture the talents of aspiring newcomers and either destroys or bends them to its own crooked will. Lynch plunges us into the story of one such wide-eyed wannabe star Betty as her well-made plans quickly turn sour in a noirish set-up that spirals into a surrealist nightmare with altered identities, shifting narratives, and confounding plot detours. Lynch’s mesmerizing work is a masterstroke of twenty-first century cinema, reverential to the medium’s halcyon days of old as well as blazing new territory for an era of postmodern art and thought.


New World

The New World (Dir. Terrence Malick, United States, 2005)

Terrence Malick’s fourth film The New World builds upon the breathtaking visual style he mastered with Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line, but it also marks a new chapter in his slowly expanding body of work. He nearly forgoes the linear storytelling of traditional narrative cinema altogether – something he experimented with some in Red Line – to craft a collage of beautiful images, exhilaratingly edited to uniquely tell his story – a feat matched in this decade only by Denis’ The Intruder. The effect is utterly intoxicating. This blurring of images as they flash across the screen, sometimes for no more than a second or two, functions as a fitting visualization of his usual exploration of the intersection where humankind and its environment meet. In focusing on the English settlement of a pre-colonial America and the ensuing collision of cultures, Malick seems to have unearthed the perfect subject for his particular brand of wonder.


Royal Tenenbaums

The Royal Tenenbaums (Dir. Wes Anderson, United States, 2001)

Wes Anderson’s greatest film The Royal Tenenbaums is an aesthetic wonder, the work of an artist refining the traits that would go on to mark his entire idiosyncratic oeuvre. His pastiche of late ‘70s/early ‘80s style, ironic, deadpan humor, comically overblown characterizations, carefully detailed mise-en-scène, and geometric camerawork are on full display here. But, what helps Anderson’s film rise above a mere exercise in gimmicky self-aware stylization is his denial of the cynicism inherent in his dark comedy by granting his characters redemption. In this way, Anderson wisely dodges the nihilist accusations his comic contemporaries the Coen brothers frequently face. He never asks us to take this portrayal of the Tenenbaum family very seriously, but in so doing, the fitting ending that provides healing for this hilariously dysfunctional family adds an unexpected layer of humanity to his particular brand of comedy.


Son

The Son (Dir. Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne, Belgium/France, 2002)

Champions of contemporary cinematic verisimilitude, the Dardenne brothers have crafted their masterpiece with The Son. Lacking the stylistic inventiveness or densely layered narratives of some of this decade’s greatest works, the brothers’ film may seem like a lightweight on a list that includes Lynch’s and Wong’s cinephilic monoliths. But, this would be a misreading of the film’s surface-level simplicity. The Dardennes’ work boasts a rigorous aesthetic that serves its skeletal narrative to underscore the bubbling conflict at its core. In this way, The Son is a hushed thriller, at once allowing us silence and space to meditate on its protagonist’s dilemma – perhaps even asking us to put ourselves in his place – and chillingly building suspense until the brothers brilliantly release it in the film’s final moments. In its third-act appeal for forgiveness in answer to its central conflict, the Dardennes’ film becomes a biblical parable of sorts, which only serves to highlight the filmmakers’ wise choice of carpentry as a visual metaphor for the film’s backdrop.


Spirited Away

Spirited Away (Dir. Hayao Miyazaki, Japan, 2001)

As a compelling metaphor for growing up, Hayao Miyazaki’s beloved Spirited Away already transcends its studio-assigned demographic to achieve universal appeal, but it’s the director’s decision to allow his narrative to breathe – visually, thematically, morally – that solidifies his film as one of the decade’s best. For though the plot that drives the story centers on a young girl’s path toward self-discovery, it also functions as a mirror held up to Miyazaki’s home country. Through the film’s various subplots and narrative detours, Spirited Away reflects a Japan in need of change. In turn, Miyazaki skewers crippling consumerism, loss of spirituality, and irresponsible treatment of the environment all in spectacularly imaginative fashion. That viewers could read optimism in its depiction of personal growth, urgency in its call to action for societal change, or both speaks to the film’s tremendous depth.


Summer Hours

Summer Hours (Dir. Olivier Assayas, France, 2008)

To counter the onslaught of hyper-relevant films falling over each other to define our current moment, Olivier Assayas delivers a quiet and moving alternative in Summer Hours that forgoes contrived narrative connectedness and plot threads ripped from the headlines to comment profoundly on the time in which we live. Assayas sidesteps the pitfalls of his contemporaries by honing in on something more universal and timeless than national current events: the family. Summer Hours, then, is a classic family drama, but it’s anchored in its early twenty-first century setting. A modern family strewn about the globe must face nostalgia and memory, learning how to carry their past into their future without clinging too tightly to what they’ve left behind after the matriarch unexpectedly passes away. Summer Hours shows the faces and personalities of those affected by this increasingly globalized world without reducing them to archetypes.


Syndromes and a Century

Syndromes and a Century (Dir. Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand, 2006)

Building upon its predecessor’s themes, structure, and even a few of its anecdotes, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Syndromes and a Century takes his now career-defining fractured narrative form to its logical conclusion: a story twice told. Weerasethakul pays homage to his parents – one from the country, the other from the city – by telling the sort-of tale of the beginning of their romance. Eschewing traditional storytelling, Weerasethakul utilizes the same actors and the same scene-setting premise to launch both halves – one set in a rural hospital, the other in a bustling urban medical center – to deliver a quiet, yet affecting meditation on the rural/urban divide. But, rather than structure the second half as a mere replica of the first, Weerasethakul cleverly subverts viewer expectations with diverging subplots that tell different stories, yet mirror the themes of those in the first. As two sides of the same coin, Weerasethakul’s film is contemplative cinema at its finest: rife with symbolic depth, yet subtly humorous in its casual execution.


Ten

Ten (Dir. Abbas Kiarostami, Iran, 2002)

One of cinema’s greatest living masters challenges his chosen medium once again, this time by intentionally limiting the role of the director and constructing narrative cinema within highly restrictive constraints. With Ten, Abbas Kiarostami captures his subjects entirely within the confines of a car roaming the streets of Tehran – the logical conclusion of his vehicular-obsessed cinema. An Iranian woman carries on ten conversations, split into numbered segments in the film, with relatives, friends, and strangers – mostly women – as she goes about her day. The film, almost exclusively composed of dual static shots of the driver and passenger seats, bears a naturalism indicative of all Kiarostami’s work, but these ten conversations strung together form a thesis statement of sorts on what it looks like to be a woman in modern-day Iran. Thus, perhaps taking a cue from his former protégé Jafar Panahi, Kiarostami’s always-challenging work welcomes a social commentary that lends this filmic experiment a remarkably powerful pull.


There Will Be Blood

There Will Be Blood (Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson, United States, 2007)

Two pillars of American individualism – capitalist entrepreneurialism and personal faith – collide in Paul Thomas Anderson’s towering There Will Be Blood. Many a critic read relevant political subtext in Anderson’s film, citing a skewering of a nation’s unpopular conservative administration, but this kneejerk interpretation ultimately proves unhelpful in hindsight. How does one account for the opposing forces in Anderson’s work that were strategically tied together in the then-current conservative platform? Instead, it seems, Anderson’s allegory here is far more nuanced, perhaps even suggesting a failure of the traditional American spirit that transcends the nation’s entire history. Given its loose narrative and wandering trajectory, There Will Be Blood is first and foremost a film of powerful images. Anderson’s every frame is filled with metaphorical depth, and the ferocity with which he builds his jaw-dropping set pieces serves to overturn the long-standing notion of American exceptionalism for an increasingly disillusioned age.


Tropical Malady

Tropical Malady (Dir. Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand, 2004)

If directors Hou and Kiarostami collectively dominated the Nineties, then this decade belongs to Apichatpong Weerasethakul. His answer to the formalist deconstruction of Kiarostami and the elliptical storytelling of Hou is a living, breathing cinema – one boasting a modernist self-reflexivity that draws attention to itself as cinema accompanied by a humble spirituality and a playfulness to counter the skepticism of a former age – that feels refreshingly of the moment and far enough removed from any given moment that it also appears timeless. Thus, it’s only fitting that the director of the decade should have two films on this list. His later Syndromes and a Century may be the finest example of his bifurcated narrative structure, but Tropical Malady remains his most readily engaging, delightfully enchanting, and emotionally resonant. The first half’s unhurried romance unfolding linearly abruptly ends halfway through and is given new, allegorical life in the second as a mystical fable involving animals and spirits that echoes the story in the first. Both segments beautifully complement one another, and taken together Tropical Malady is one captivating watch.


Walle

WALL*E (Dir. Andrew Stanton, United States, 2008)

In what is probably the most artfully composed piece of pop culture to bear the Disney brand name, the Pixar team works wonders with this tender tale of robots in love against a startlingly grim picture of our future world. Andrew Stanton’s WALL*E begins on a desolate, uninhabited earth where humans have escaped the consequences of their own recklessness, and only a curious, trash-collecting android remains to purge the land. The film’s first half is near revelatory as an inspired ode to an era of silent film comedies that then gives way to a rather frank critique of American consumerism, laziness, and careless treatment of our planet in its second half. These scenes of humankind at its worst are unfortunately remarkably prescient, as only a few years on from WALL*E‘s release, our race is already showing signs of alarming dependence on technology. Like Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, Stanton’s cautionary, yet ultimately hopeful work appropriately appeases its intended audience, then blows past this demographic to achieve something more.


Werckmeister Harmonies

Werckmeister Harmonies (Dir. Béla Tarr, Hungary, 2000)

Known for his unparalleled use of lengthy takes and stark black and white photography, Béla Tarr is the master of slow cinema. This decade he has crafted yet another masterpiece with his staggering Werckmeister Harmonies, a film comprised of not more than forty shots in an industry that favors several hundreds per film on average. What appears on screen, then, is understandably deliberately and meticulously choreographed and photographed. Harmonies is a film of powerful images – the opening barroom dance of metaphorical celestial bodies, a rotting whale carcass in the middle of a town’s square, rioters who ransack a hospital and only come to a halt when faced with the vulnerability and fragility of human life – and deep philosophical import. And yet, Tarr offers no easy interpretations as to what it all means, though an undercurrent of tumultuous Hungarian history in a post-Soviet world is present throughout.


Yi Yi

Yi Yi (Dir. Edward Yang, Taiwan, 2000)

Perhaps Edward Yang’s optimistic corrective to his bleak masterstroke A Brighter Summer Day, the director’s final film Yi Yi functions as a fitting swansong for an artist who had an uncanny pulse on humanity. His last film is a family saga in the vein of his and his contemporary Hou Hsiao-hsien’s early work that takes its time in weeding out the details of multiple characters’ lives that, taken together, paints a holistic portrait of a modern-day Taiwanese family. Though, of course, these daily, relational, professional, and moral concerns are fundamentally universal. Yang’s characters experience successes, failures of their own doing, tragic loss, and ultimately growth over the course of the film’s lengthy runtime – essentially, we see them live. It’s a poignant and rewarding film that sheds light on the pitfalls of average people, but also ultimately celebrates what it means to be human.


Honorable Mention:

35 Shots of Rum (Dir. Claire Denis, France, 2008) – for its beautifully choreographed scene that hinges tension and character development on body language and a perfectly cued pop song

2046 (Dir. Wong Kar-wai, Hong Kong, 2004) – for its expansion of its predecessor’s themes by breaking apart that film’s tender linear narrative

Children of Men (Dir. Alfonso Cuarón, United States, 2006) – for its eschewal of dystopian genre tropes in favor of welcome religious allegory

The Circle (Dir. Jafar Panahi, Iran, 2000) – for its cleverly connected narrative threads that underscore the injustices that befall women living in modern-day Iran

City of God (Dir. Fernando Meirelles, Brazil, 2002) – for its brutal, yet stylish depiction of coming of age amidst gang violence in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas

The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (Dir. Cristi Puiu, Romania, 2005) – for its realist meditation on the inevitability of death and failing bureaucracies

I’m Not There (Dir. Todd Haynes, United States, 2007) – for its schizophrenic depiction of its equally eccentric and enigmatic central mythic figure

Lost in Translation (Dir. Sophia Coppola, United States, 2003) – for its humorous depiction of a nation through the eyes of a tourist

No Country for Old Men (Dir. Joel & Ethan Coen, United States, 2007) – for its successful adaptation of a difficult work that establishes a firm authorial voice distinct from that of its source

Platform (Dir. Jia Zhang-ke, China, 2000) – for its subtly evolving aesthetic that mirrors the decades-spanning national changes at the center of its narrative

Pride & Prejudice (Dir. Joe Wright, United Kingdom, 2005) – for its dedication to its beloved text while exploring the cinematic possibilities of literary adaptation

Wendy and Lucy (Dir. Kelly Reichardt, United States, 2008) – for its intimate, realist depiction of the effects of a widespread economic downturn

The Wind Will Carry Us

wind will carry us 2

(Dir. Abbas Kiarostami, Iran, 1999)

A Matter of Life and Death

Abbas Kiarostami’s cinema is almost immediately recognizable as his and his alone. From the inner-city of Tehran to the vast countryside of northern Iran to far-flung locations such as Italy and Tokyo, there are certain traits that mark each of his films typically within minutes – wide shots, automobiles in motion, non-actors, people talking in automobiles, blurry distinctions between fiction and reality, and, oh yeah, more automobiles. Moreover, much of Kiarostami’s work throughout the ‘90s – inarguably his golden period – dealt with the overall theme of the preciousness of life. Whether from the stories of survivors of Iran’s major 1990 earthquake or one man on the verge of suicide, Kiarostami found reasons to celebrate life. His final feature of the decade The Wind Will Carry Us, then, represents the culmination of his ‘90s output in likely his most serene and contemplative film yet.

The film opens with a wide shot mirroring the memorable final shot of Life, And Nothing More thus bringing us back to the spacious rural areas of northern Iran after the Tehran-set Taste of Cherry. A car snakes through a winding road along a dusty hillside as the passengers within mockingly attempt to make sense of the directions to their unnamed destination sans street signs or practical landmarks. It is immediately obvious that these three men are city dwellers. They soon come across a young boy who tells them that he’s been instructed to wait for them and escort them to his village nearby. The vehicle stumbles upon the village as it turns a corner, and Kiarostami captures this beautiful little town in glorious wide shot. The village, made up of white plaster homes appearing as if stacked on top of each other, is nestled into the side of a hill, and the passengers, like us, are struck by the overwhelming sight.

As the car stalls at the bottom of the hill, two of the passengers emerge to try to get it to start again, and the other follows the young boy up the side of the hill to retrieve water. As the pair climbs, Kiarostami establishes these two as the film’s major protagonists – Behzad Dorani the crass and short-tempered engineer and Farzad Sohrabi his ten-year old companion and guide through the labyrinth and customs of this quaint rural town. And, as usual, the characters’ names match those of the actors playing them. The majority of the film follows Behzad as he explores the hillside village with Farzad waiting to fulfill his not-so-secret mission of capturing a grieving ceremony following the death of an elderly matriarch. Behzad and his colleagues are photojournalists, and though most of the villagers know this, he insists on the secrecy of their assignment.

Much to his chagrin, the woman begins regaining her health. The three to four-day expedition turns into a two-week stay, and Behzad’s colleagues, though never shown on camera, become restless. Unlike him, they rarely emerge from their room unless going off to pick strawberries. The engineer’s willingness to engage in the culture – though he’s often an inconvenience to the villager’s way of life – is crucial for his character development that takes place over the course of the film. Time and again, this urbanite’s fast-paced living clashes with the slower pace, ease, and traditionalism of this small town. This is most evident in one of the film’s repeated sequences where Behzad’s mobile phone rings, and he’s forced to race down the hill, get in the car, and drive to a nearby hilltop to obtain a better signal. In one of these scenes, he runs through the plaster homes and the car speedily drives down the road kicking up a cloud of dust in the background, while a boy casually leads a herd of cattle across the frame in the foreground. It’s a brilliant juxtaposition of two cultures at ends with one another. The man commits a whole slew of cultural taboos during his stay – unknowingly stomping all over graves at the village’s nearby cemetery while on the phone, non-discretely snapping photographs of various townspeople, making a similar mistake as the director from Through the Olive Trees by asking a young woman her name – and yet the villagers tolerate and even accept his overbearing presence nonetheless.

Perhaps of all these offenses, his most egregious is his poor treatment of Farzad. The boy accommodates and even befriends the man, yet Behzad repeatedly abuses the boy’s kindness keeping him late for school, pulling him out of sitting exams to ask him questions, and treating him with sarcasm. It’s clear Behzad enjoys the company of his young companion, but it’s a friendship he fails to appreciate until it’s too late – he snaps at poor Farzad for divulging information about the old woman’s condition to his impatient colleagues and asks him to return only when he has good news. It’s important to note that “good news” to Behzad would be that the woman quickly approaches her death so he can shoot the ceremony. Here, Kiarostami ultimately reveals Behzad’s greatest sin of all: though he continually exhibits a disregard for the customs and ways of these villagers, his lack of respect for the sanctity of life in general keeps him from experiencing it to the fullest.

The film’s appropriately slow-moving pace mirrors the lifestyle of this rural village, and it believably offers adequate time for the transformation Behzad experiences come film’s end. Over the course of these two weeks, he slowly softens toward many of these traditions and more patiently engages with the townspeople seemingly more willing to achieve understanding. The film’s narrative – if it can even be called that – comes to a head when a hole caves in on a man digging a spot for a future telecommunications pole. Behzad converses with this unseen man throughout the film during his many trips to high ground for reception, and one such occasion he witnesses the man get buried alive. Now racing in the opposite direction, his car speeds through the valley to alert the other workers of the man’s situation. When he lends out his vehicle for a group of men to rush the unconscious man to a nearby hospital, he’s paired with the region’s traveling physician.

On the back of the doctor’s motorcycle – a sequence captured in beautiful wide shot of the expanse of rolling fields of tall grass – Kiarostami’s primary concern bubbles to the surface. As an educated man, Behzad initially thinks he’ll find common ground with the doctor, but he soon realizes that this man too prefers to the quiet, laidback life of the countryside to the bustle of the city. Behzad asserts that idleness leads to evil (perhaps a guilty admission of how he treated Farzad), but the doctor claims that death is the worst ailment of all. With death, there’s no more basking in the beauty of this life. And when Behzad protests with obligatory religious notions of an afterlife, the doctor claims to prefer the present to the promises of an uncertain future. It’s a remarkably humane, poignant, and again life-affirming dialogue between the two, and one that inevitably leaves Behzad changed.

He returns to the village and takes a few pictures of a procession of mourners, but ultimately Kiarostami offers yet another ambiguous ending. Does the old woman eventually die? Does Behzad shoot the ceremony? Do he and Farzad make amends? It should be expected at this point in Kiarostami’s oeuvre that he encourages his audience to choose their own ending. But, the film’s final moments do provide some resolve for Behzad. He decidedly tosses a femur bone that he found earlier in the cemetery into the nearby stream, and the camera follows it float by until it cuts to the credits. He finally rejects the fascination with and the carelessness with which he so casually treated death – wishing for the old woman’s fate sooner rather than later for the sole purpose of completing his professional assignment – by disposing of the constant reminder lingering on the dashboard of his car. The doctor’s admonition to respect life has settled in. And, Kiarostami never hides the fact that it took escaping his fast-paced existence in the urban sprawl of Tehran to discover the meaning of appreciating life itself.

Thus, while The Wind Will Carry Us lacks the complexity of his unofficial Koker trilogy or narrative inventiveness of Close-Up or the audacious climax of Taste of Cherry, it’s perhaps Kiarostami’s most complete film. It’s at once a furtherance of his solid life-affirming principles, a thoughtful mediation on the divide between urban and rural existence, a quite humorous story unlike his former work (amusing non-sequiturs abound – “it’s a bone not a shoe”), and another engaging puzzle piece for his audience to actively complete. It stands as a fitting, final masterpiece for the decade that solidified Kiarostami’s reputation as one of cinema’s greatest masters.

wind will carry us

Alamar

Alamar5

(Dir. Pedro González-Rubio, Mexico, 2009)

Old and Young Men and the Sea

In the vein of the greats Abbas Kiarostami and Jafar Panahi, filmmaker Pedro González-Rubio crafts an unexpectedly captivating documentary-fiction hybrid that weds the realistic humanism of the former Iranian master with the harmonious blending of human and nature of Terrence Malick. With Alamar, González-Rubio pares down the philosophical ponderings of Malick in favor of basking in the glorious vistas that he and DP Alexis Zabe capture. In terms of scope, then, the implications of González-Rubio’s film are less paramount than say The Thin Red Line or The New World, but the father-son relationship at its center leads it straight to the heart. And, in terms of style González-Rubio owes very little to Kiarostami or Malick, thus Alamar is a beautifully unique portrait of tender familial bonds and humankind’s relation to nature – in this case, the sea.

The film follows the real-life couple of Mexican fisherman Jorge and Italian Roberta who fall in love in Mexico, give birth to their son Natan, then split while their child’s still young. González-Rubio covers this portion of the family’s story in a prelude of sorts through home videos playing in tight frame while the ex-lovers narrate. This unique introduction to our characters gives the film immediate grounding in the real world, and the fact that these three are non-actors and real family members only leads to the story’s resonance. González-Rubio’s narrative jumps ahead to a post-separation Roberta and a five-year-old Natan, and the frame has switched from home video recording quality to a sharp, stylish HD. The mother gently wakes up her son informing him that his father will be by shortly.

In no time at all, Jorge arrives, sweeps Natan up, and carries him far from civilization and shore to the Banco Chinchorro reef off the coast of southern Mexico. González-Rubio carefully documents every step of their journey, both highlighting the great distance the pair travels from the urban world to their Eden in the middle of the ocean and keeping his audience in the dark as to where they’re headed and why. All the while his camera encourages us to simply take in the natural beauty that nearly consumes us as the camera fearlessly plunges into the water and locks on to every moving body as it jumps from dock to boat in front of the frame.

There isn’t much by way of plot to drive Alamar along, but the strengthening bond between father and son – both Jorge and Natan prove to be compelling subjects – and the arresting visuals González-Rubio captures are enough to keep viewers enthralled for its brief hour and fifteen minute runtime. Nothing is force-fed in González-Rubio’s film; it’s bittersweet as Jorge and Natan interact as both know that their time together is fleeting, but there’s no underlying moral contrivance or overt disapproval of the former couple’s decision. Likewise, there’s a gentle environmental message bubbling under the narrative’s surface, but it never erupts into ham-fisted proselytizing. Instead the film is a quiet meditation on the most basic of human relationships: parent to child and humankind to its environment. The result is one simple, yet not naïve, beautiful film from a newer talent who’s bold enough to challenge the conventions of popular and art house cinema.

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