It's not something I hear as frequently as a few years ago, but there still persists this notion among the film community that "cinema isn't what it used to be," mostly among stuffy academic types.
really take offense to this, because there's a whiff of racism behind
it. Since the late 1980's, the greatest star in cinema has been the
Middle East and East Asia.
Most who wail about
the "death of cinema" tend to champion the Western European and
Hollywood classics ONLY. When I have heard this opinion, they always say
"Fellini, Antonioni, Godard, Truffaut, Renoir!"
to take away from those greats, but that represents a VERY SMALL
portion of the world, and a specific historical era influenced by
certain conditions. It shouldn't be seen as the "end-all, be-all" of
And it really insults so
much of the great work from Brazil, Senegal, Algeria, China, South
Korea, Philippines, Serbia, Czech Republic (and the former
Czechoslovakia), Kazakhstan, Mali, Burkina Faso, Poland, Argentina, and
so many more nations.
But I don't assume
that everyone watches what I watch, so I've thought to make a short list
with examples of films that I think are as strong as anything from a
Western European-Hollywood studio canonical list (like say... the
'required' viewing list that Spike Lee presents to his students).
10 Films Made in the Past 10 Years That Are as Good as Anything You'll Find:
(not in any particular order)
1) The World - Jia Zhangke
film is important, literally and figuratively, as it's astounding, but
also reflects the rise of China, as an economic, geopolitical, and
cultural center in the world. The film's title comes from a theme park,
which may not represent the entire world, but the best of it - the
landmarks. Some touching, memorable scenes are when a plane flies over
head, and one of the workers (who make up the cast) says, "Who do you
think flies on those?"
Also, scenes between the troupe of
Russian theme park workers and their associations with the local Chinese
(who come from all over China) provide for some measured, but sincerely
done approaches towards international friendship. The film is one of
the best to represent changes in culture due to globalization, and the
shift in values due to East Asia's industrial renaissance.
2) Visage - Tsai Ming-liang
is another film from East Asia, from Tsai Ming-liang, the openly gay
and one of the more Westernized of the Taiwanese New Wave (which
includes Hou Hsiao-hsien, Wu Nien-jen, and the recently deceased Edward
Tsai takes his love of the French New Wave (and his
repeating cast) to Paris, to film the story of a Taiwanese director
attempting to make an art film in the city of lights.
The film is
a tour de force of aesthetic mastery. It is filled with early 20th
century Chinese songs, some sung by the beautiful model/actress Letitia
Casta, and each frame could be a standalone painting.
is not a "plot" per se, but more of a tour of Paris, a slow reminiscence
on the state of film, and a threnody to the old masters (via one scene
starring Nouvelle Vague poster boy, Jean-Pierre Leaud).
3) The Weeping Meadow - Theodoros Angelopoulos
first entry from the Greek director's unfinished trilogy is just as
exciting as any of his work from the past three decades. Angelopoulos
shows such an ease in his style, and his near-endless steadicam/crane
shots feel completely natural.
His historical competency is
just as lucid as he takes us through the usual familial memories of war,
political upheaval, and colonization.
This film follows Greek
refugees from Odessa after the Bolshevik Revolution, and continues in
part two of the trilogy, Angelopoulos' last film unfortunately, The Dust of Time.
4) Lady Chatterley - Pascale Ferran
was hesitant to add this entry, but it really shows a continuation of
some of the best traditions in French cinema: naturalistic
cinematography, good scriptwriting, a character-driven narrative, rich
dialogue, a sense of economy, and well-paced timing. I was never able to
watch the television version, which runs about an hour long than the
theatrical cut, but its a nice take on D.H. Lawrence's well-known story
of a relationship crossing class and marital boundaries.
of the English names are changed for the French-speaking cast, but it
all comes off very naturally, and some of the most memorable and
well-executed scenes are the ones between the eponymous lady and her
beau, the gamekeeper, as they sneak away from the lord of the estate and
engage in their love affair.
5) Star-Spangled to Death - Ken Jacobs
long ago, I finally embarked on this long journey, experimental
luminary Ken Jacobs' near-seven hour rumination on American media,
psychology, and well... just any topic imaginable.
It is the most
avant-garde of features in that it is entirely composed of found
footage. None of pieces really go together--he takes scenes from racist,
ethnographic pieces of African villagers shot during colonialism,
scientific films featuring animal testing, Richard Nixon's apology
speeches, sound clips of protests, some footage from his early shorts,
along with speeches from Black Panther members. Coalesced together, it
becomes a mental journey through America. It comes off more as thought
than visual storytelling. It could also be thought of as stream of
consciousness editing. All of it comes together to maybe be an analysis
of Jacobs' head than anything else, but it is an experience that cannot
be missed and one of the most unique works of art from the United
6) West of the Tracks - Wang Bing
to China! This nation really is producing some of the strongest work
today, though it may be getting ignored (at least in America), due to
cultural unfamiliarity. But this documentary, clocking in at a running
time of nine hours, is one of the best in cinematic history. I would say
that maybe the film I feel was the strongest of the postwar period of Hitler: a Film from Germany,
and certainly, the only thing made since to match that epic experience
is this, Wang Bing's analysis of social decay after the closing of a
state-run factory in Shenyang.
For the first hour, we get the
sense that something is amiss. Workers in a locker room (gleefully
unashamed!) argue furiously with each other over nothing. I wondered
whether or not the footage was staged, but it seemed it might be too
hard get such detail and accuracy in the arguments, so began to accept
it as a documentary. That feeling kept going throughout the film. If it
was a documentary, it was incredible, but could I also be watching the
best fictionalized drama ever?
Maybe this questioning of
reality stems from the fact that the 20,000 or so members of the town
also have their lives in question. Little by little, the men in the town
begin to lose their factory jobs, and we see the decay.
film is divided into three distinct sections: Rust, Remnants, and Rails,
and by the end of it, the factory has closed and families are in
question as we see the teens wander the streets aimlessly or chat up
shopkeepers or try to coax young women into sex.
outsider to Chinese society and never having had the opportunity to
visit China, I can't affirm how accurate it is to Shenyang, or whether
it truthfully portrayed the industrial decay of that city, but it was an
experience I was more immersed in than any other. A film with no equal.
7) Death in the Land of Encantos - Lav Diaz
of the greatest gifts of the 21st century and the best result of
digitization in cinema is sudden, meteoric rise of cinema in Southeast
Asia. There has also been a second boost in West Africa, after the
collapse of state-funding during the socialist period, but those films
have gone below my radar.
Anyhow, countries like Malaysia,
Vietnam, Thailand, and especially the Philippines have had a liberation
through the cheap access of digital technology.
In fact, there's an interview with Lav Diaz titled, "Digital is liberation theology."
love the title for the double meaning it has. As cinema has been used
to oppress the third world through negative media representation, yet it
also has the capacity to liberate them through equal access.
directors like Lav Diaz, Raya Martin, and Sherad Anthony Sanchez are
doing just that all with the new opportunities through equipment.
really is no way to not to stress enough the fact that we are seeing a
CONTEMPORARY RENAISSANCE in the Philippines. Countries who did not have
open cinemas before tend to make nationalistic works in attempt of
self-definition, and this is what Diaz and others have done. Encantos,
the first in Diaz' trilogy and Martin's A Short Film About the Indio
Nacional continue this tradition of national reassessment and
re-orientation after a legacy of European colonialism and a following
period of dictatorship by militarism and a comprador bourgeoisie.
But what about the film?
to its richness, it could be easy to do an entire dissertation on this,
Diaz' third entry in a trilogy, but to remain brief and allow room for
other titles, it follows a group of three artists, focused on Hamin, a
poet, as they traverse the Philippine jungle after the devastating Super
The three engage in long, fulfilling discussions
on the state of art, the meaning of it, the role of the artist, and the
position of the Philippines in the world.
Never before has a
director attempted to sum up the zeitgeist of his nation, and the world
by extension, and so successfully nailed it at each step. The gargantuan
running time (9 hours and 5 minutes) is just a requirement for all the
work that Diaz must do. He is building up a new national cinema, by the
way. Though the Philippines has been making films for decades, this is
the first time that we have seen so many working in a time of general
political freedom and able to work outside of commercial demands.
8) Last Life in the Universe - Pen-ek Ratanaruang
This film isn't one that particularly needs promotion, but is tremendously important in the soup of titles.
The industrial essentialism of the Japanese meets the languidness of Thai culture in this Asian mashup.
favorite actor Tadanobu Asano stars as a man with a mysterious past who
arrives in Bangkok and tries to revive some sense of normal through his
His hopes are soon shattered after he views a Thai
teenager jump over a bridge next to a car crash. As a way of
consolation, and through circumstance, he stays with the girl's older
sister, and falls into the Thai way of life. Pot-smoking, staying up all
night, leaving dishes unwashed, and other behavior ensues.
highlights of this self-consciously arty film are the soundtrack from
Small Room and the many oneiric scenes, such as the house cleaning up
itself or some of the (rarely) well-done slow-motion shots.
Like some of the best films, but not enough of them, this one is more about the art then about the "what happens next."
9) Syndromes and Century - Apichatpong Weerasethakul
would seem incredibly unfair to construct any list of 21st century
favorites and leave out "Joe", the boy wonder from Thailand.
never feel that I understand his films or his directorial choices, but I
do enjoy them and always look forward to the next one. Maybe it's
because his style is just so personal and unique that I don't have an
"in". But you never can quite forget a film by Joe after you watch it.
also was irrelevant which one I choose either. They are all EXTREMELY
avant-garde, and it seems that somehow, he's found a place for himself
within the international arthouse scene without conforming to any
previously established expectation for cinema.
reason, I have to mention him though I typically feel a bit lost during
his films, except the recent Uncle Boonmee, which was more
One the face of it, this is a remembrance of
Joe's parents, both doctors in Thailand during the 70's. That is what is
in the synopsis at least, but the film becomes many things. It has an
appearance by a Buddhist monk who wants to become a DJ (which is why the
film had trouble with Thai censorship). It jumps to the modern era with
robotic equipment and some beautiful, though unmotivated shots of new
hospital equipment, and has new doctors take the place of the old.
would more classify Joe and his cinema in the place of the fine arts.
His films are easy to enjoy, but they are not pieces to understand. Only
to have impressions of when they are over. The best thing I can say is
that an image of his "gave me this one feeling," or "reminded me of one
10) Crimson Gold - Jafar Panahi
are several reasons for the international hostility towards Iran--some
geopolitical, some because of its defensive stance against Israel and
Western globalization after the '79 revolution, some unknown to
everyone, and while I tend not to jump into the popular 'anti-Iran'
protest that's promoted in the Western media, I was upset to find out
that the regime had repressed some of my favorite filmmakers, even going
so far as to place Jafar Panahi on house arrest and briefly imprisoning
This film does not resist the religious Shiite
system that the nation is currently structured under or the lack of
political options, but rather, the entrenched class system that exists
Hussein, a deliveryman, seems to be born into a world
that is set against him. He makes deliveries to an expensive jewelry
store that contains not a single item that he can afford on his meager
His conservative wife complains about bills and how he cannot pay them.
He spends much of his time stuck in traffic in the rush to make deliveries so he can barely keep things together.
And then what happens?
He snaps and robs the jewelry store that stands as an eyesore and a reminder of his poverty.
that theft, Hussein becomes a frequent criminal, with an amazing
finally in the penthouse of a young millionaire high above Tehran.
To see this film is to know the economic oppression that exists in much of the world.
aren't all the films that mean cinema isn't dead, but just a taste. I
tried to be as international as possible while remaining true to works
that deeply affected me. I regretfully was not able to list any titles
from South America or Africa, but this is also due to the fact that
there is so much more to see. But I was able to add some titles that
probably don't get a fair amount of attention as well as some that did
well on the international film circuit. This list should just be seen as
a starting point to why cinema is still strong, not as a new canon.