Tag Archives: There Will Be Blood

I finally review The Master. (And yes, I know at this point, why bother?)

8 May

(I’m really, really late to the game on this one, but I’ve been digesting this movie for months, and waited to watch it a second time before writing. And then waited some more. And some more. So here are my thoughts, way too late for anyone to care.)

1.

The Master is fascinating, unnerving, beguiling and unforgettable. It’s also distressing, irritating, oblique and strange. It’s one of the best films of last year, and yet in the final tally haunted by its own failings. There’s an enigma at the film’s center, and, I suspect, two crucial scenes edited out of the final cut[1].

The movie follows an outcast ex-sailor, Freddy Quell, haunting the early post-war years in 1950s America. His peregrinations carry him from department store photographer to day-laboring farmer. He eventually falls under the sway of an emerging cult leader, Lancaster Dodd. The bulk of the film follows Quell and Dodd as they collide, attract and repel each other. Quell becomes a test case for Dodd, and the efficacy of his methods. Dodd puts Quell through the sometimes silly, sometimes grueling “processing,” of his cult, while expanding his organization against social and legal resistance.

There’s a Freudian subtext permeating the movie, an undercurrent of sexual repulsion and attraction. Throughout Quell holds a kind of animal attraction to the other characters. He’s visually represented by the re-occurring shots of the sea (just as Daniel Plainview’s inner rot in There Will Be Blood is mirrored by the scorched earth and the black tar; Barry Egan’s odd, cosmic innocence in Punch Drunk Love is reflected by prisms of beautiful light, his whimsy by the child’s harpsichord; and the de-personalized sex of the 1970s porn industry in Boogie Nights is grounded in the gears of the moving cameras.) But the image of the sea poses one of the first problems of the picture. What does it say about Quell? Is it his unpredictability, or his immense sexual energy, or the fact that he isn’t a fixed thing, that he has no center? Is he a force of nature or a formless mass? This question is never quite answered—he sort of vacillates between the two—and the film suffers for it.

Quell at work on his infernal homemade liquor.

Quell at work on his infernal homemade liquor.

The film might operate as an existential parable, but Quell is too disturbed to be a stand-in for everyman. His condition is so singular that the movie doesn’t operate with archetypes, not really. So the missing scene—the thing that haunts the movie, as far as I’m concerned, gives it much of its power but also interferes with our understanding of it—gets more and more conspicuous in its absence. It’s gnawing at me. I keep replaying the movie in my mind, looking for clues. (This kind of thing can pay immense dividends; Robert Altman’s Nashville has a major puzzle to it, but there’s an answer if you watch it enough times. Ditto for Mulholland Drive, Taxi Driver, Vertigo, and half a dozen other films.) But The Master resists such interrogation.

The easy read of the movie is to set up Quell as a foil for, and reflection of, Dodd, the charismatic cult leader who controls the people around him but is shackled by his own wild and fabulist claims. Dodd believes in his powers but knows, at least as Hoffman plays him, that the cosmology he’s inventing cannot be true. Yet he must believe it to keep his followers in line. So he’s a prisoner of his own inventions, like some fiction writer kidnapped by his own creations. Just as Quell is a prisoner of his own animalistic urges. With this interpretation, Dodd understands his plight but can do nothing to alter it, while Quell controls nothing in his life, including his own emotions.

Okay, fine, but too tidy and neat; this doppelganger approach can only go so far. For it is how Dodd and Quell are different that makes the movie interesting. Dodd keeps his dark thoughts hidden; Quell overflows with animus and vitriol and shame. They aren’t flipsides of the same coin either. Quell is a sex-obsessed thief, a drunken soldier, a tormented alcoholic with a tiny inner life. His thoughts are his actions, and what he keeps inside seems to be only pain. Dodd is a fabulist, a liar who sees the needs of others and tries to bend their needs to his own purposes. Dodd doesn’t want to be the miserable Quell. Who would? And Quell doesn’t want to be Dodd, hemmed in by the beliefs of his followers.

2.

The closest film to The Master I can think of, and this will strike some as strange, is Lawrence of Arabia. Both are long, careful character studies of deranged minds. Lawrence is sexually confused, violent, sadistic and sociopathic; if you watch the film carefully, you’ll see that most of his emotions are mimicry. He attempts to display the emotions that the other characters are expecting. Lawrence doesn’t understand himself, nor does he fully understand the world. He wishes to be an Arab, but he can’t help but be British. He’s at conflict with himself, and he can’t sublimate his schizoid tendencies.

Freddy Quell is a similar character, only more unhinged (through the constant imbibing of toxic, homemade liquor). He’s incapable of keeping a regular job. Like Lawrence, he’s physically weak, yet somehow strong. He’s motivated by some deep-rooted self-destructive urge. He doesn’t understand himself or the world, floating through post-war society like a child drifting on a not so gentle tide. Like Lawrence, Quell uses violence as a way to communicate, and understand, his own desires.

Hell, Phoenix even kind of looks like O’Toole’s Lawrence, angular, distorted, face in a grimace.

O'Toole as a murderous, half-crazy freak, remembered as a war hero.

O’Toole as a murderous, half-crazy freak, remembered as a war hero.

 

Phoenix looking haunted, haggard, and sort of like O'Toole.

Phoenix looking haunted, haggard, and sort of like O’Toole, right?

Both films are gorgeous. Both films are crowded at the edges with plot that seems important, but isn’t fully fleshed out. (In Lawrence, the plot is the historical forces at work in Palestine. Here it’s the formation and extension of Scientology. In both the plot is a backdrop to warp, extend, and disturb the main character. The plot acts on and against both characters, as opposed to the other way around.) Arabia obsesses over the punishing beauty of the desert. Master returns over and over to the foamy, sexually charged imagery of the ocean[2]. Both are slow, plodding, meticulous and challenging. Both slow down the viewing sensations, while maintaining inner tension within the characters that translates into discomfort for the audience.

And both films are, in essence, about repressed homosexuality. If you’ve only seen some of Lawrence of Arabia, or if you’ve only read about it, you won’t know what I’m speaking of, but there’s a scene near the end where Lawrence is captured. He’s stripped. His captors mock his pale skin and then pierce his nipples with stabbing knives. (It’s supremely disturbing.) Off-screen, the movie implies he’s raped, subjected to sexual humiliation, tortured in unspeakable ways. The movie also implies that he might enjoy being punished. He never recovers.

The Master has its hidden scenes, too. The first shot of the movie is Quell’s half-concealed face, on what appears to be a few minutes before one of the major Pacific Theatre battles. We never see the battle, or the horrors Quell witnesses.

The two movies draw from the exact same thematic well: sex, war, nature. Masochism, sadism, control. Lawrence ends with T.E. Lawrence’s face hidden in shadow. Master begins with Quell’s helmeted face hunkered down in a ship. Both films appear to scrutinize and observe, but elide as much as they reveal. Both films are about men of war trying to find peace.

The infuriating thing about the professional criticism The Master is that so many learned reviewers missed the central issue in the movie. Critics who see father-son relations are missing the subtext. They watched a different movie.

And the missing scene—if I’m right—is a love scene between Dodd and Quell[3].

3.

Anderson is superb screenwriter. He collaborates with his actors, but doesn’t to my knowledge collaborate with other writers. So his movies often feel in dialogue with each other—he’s built a body of work, like a novelist or composer. The most obvious example of this ongoing dialogue between his films is Magnolia’s operatic largeness in contrast to the compact, short, internalized Punch Drunk Love. The Master feels like an extension of Blood, but it really isn’t. Dodd isn’t Plainview, and neither is Quell. Plainview is bitter, driven, obsessed with money, a man with no past only future, asexual and bitterly aware of his own terrifying flaws. He’s a misanthrope and a monster, obsessed with family but unwilling to risk the emotional pain families inevitably cause. Plainview is ruined by his profession, hollowed out like some dug out old oil well. In another world, perhaps, he might have ended up differently. He chooses his fate, embraces his hatred, and ends up a despicable, hollowed out man.

The story goes that Anderson cobbled together this script from a number of sources, including discarded scenes from There Will Be Blood and anecdotes Jason Robards told him on the set of Magnolia. Anderson then added stories from the early days of Scientology and placed the whole thing in the 1950s post-war milieu. The movie doesn’t feel fractured so much as stitched together. The most powerful scenes, of Quell undergoing grueling psychological programming at the hands of Dodd, don’t fit with the most beautiful shots of Quell as a sailor at the end of the war. And this might be the most beautiful shot in all of cinema[4].

My vote for the most beautiful single shot of the year.

My vote for the most beautiful shot of the year.

The result is a film that feels meticulous yet sloppy. The costumes, the music, and the interiors all feel just right. The scenes are mesmerizing. The acting is superb.

And yet. We’re back to those missing scenes, that hole at the heart of the film. Like Lawrence coming out of the desert, a shimmering figure that somehow loses substance as he comes into view. What draws these two characters together? And what forces them apart? The movie’s answer, given in a flim flam speech at the end, is silly, a bizarre fill-in for the ambiguity both men feel about their mutual attraction.

Like many of his peers (Wes Anderson, Tarantino, Araki) Anderson’s been steeped in the language of film for so long he sometimes feels overly concerned with cinema, and not concerned enough with his storytelling.

Nowhere is this so evident than near the end of The Master when Quell falls asleep in a movie theater. He begins to dream, and in his dream receives a phone call from Dodd. It’s the one scene in the movie that simply does not work. It feels contrived (after the phone call Quell travels to England to have a final confrontation with Dodd), too self-serving and tidy (the epiphany comes in a movie theater!), and beneath the complexity of the rest of the film.

Throughout Anderson flouts many of the golden rules of screenwriting: there’s no real structure; the characters don’t seem to change; the issues aren’t numerated; the point of the whole thing is left up to the viewer. Anderson said in a recent interview, regarding the movie: “The characters don’t figure it out. They start the same and they end the same.” For all his virtuosic skill—and this is the thing that rubs some people the wrong way—Anderson no longer craves the audience’s approval. He’s been freed. But this freedom carries gravitas, and can weigh an artist down. Audience expectations keep a movie structured.

Anderson is undeniably talented with the camera. And he often fixes narrative issues with his visual brio. He’s the best parts of Robert Altman, Elia Kazan, George Stevens, Robert Bresson, Francis Coppola, Lee Strasberg and Stella Adler. He’s rigorous, challenging, entertaining, haunting and revelatory. He’s a synthesis of old and new Hollywood. I love him for this, and you should love him, too.

4.

For all its flaws, the movie is a masterpiece of acting, some of the best performances I’ve seen. Amy Adams is excellent. She plays Dodd’s wife, mousy on the outside but steely, driven, controlling. Hoffman is superb, balancing his character’s self-conscious lying with his self-delusion. But Phoenix delivers a performance that is unhinged, feral, outrageous. He plays the role like some black-hearted animal. He channels Brando (from Last Tango) and Jack Nicholson (from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) and half a dozen others, but with a dash of untamed wildness that is mostly new. He’s ferocious, demonic, yet deeply wounded. The story from the set is that he kept destroying things during the filming, and director Anderson just kept the camera rolling.

Adams steals every scene in the movie.

Adams is superb, stealing every scene in the movie.

Phoenix didn’t win the best actor award. His performance was too unruly, too disturbed, too personal. There’s only a whiff of mainstream assimilation for his character, and this right at the end of the film.

Hoffman didn’t win either, which was nuts[5]. He’s incredible, both arrogant and also vulnerable, an improvement on Andy Griffith’s very fine performance as a manipulative huckster in Face in the Crowd. He’s cruel one minute, kind the next.

So the best acting of the year was passed over.

5.

The fact that The Master has struggled to find an audience, and Lawrence of Arabia was a success, speaks oodles about moviegoers. Lawrence utilizes a more formal visual language, a longer running time, and is less satisfying as a film.

Still, Lawrence of Arabia is important. There Will Be Blood is important. The Master, somehow, is not.

So is The Master the best movie of this past year? No[6], but Vertigo shouldn’t be considered the best movie of the 20th century, either. They’re too odd, overflowing with too much hinted-at perversity, too concerned with the internal territory novels handle so well. Both auger in despair and hopelessness, detailing shattered lives. But is The Master the most interesting movie I’ve seen this year? Undoubtedly.


[1] Or more likely intentionally left out of the filming process.

[2] Although there’s a great desert scene, too.

[3] A second missing scene, or series of scenes, must involve Quell’s actions in the war. He’s murdered and killed, he’s seen horrible things, and these too inform his madness.

[4] Or perhaps it’s Nicole Kidman’s derriere at the beginning of Eyes Wide Shut.

[5] Although this was the strongest best supporting actor competition in my lifetime.

[6] But it’s oodles better than Argo.

Advertisements

Best films by decade: The 2000s (intro and movies 1-5)

3 Aug

If the movies of the seventies were glum and dilapidated; the eighties overblown and reactionary; the nineties garish and silly; the 2000s were sincere and unpredictable.

The decade began with commercial planes crashing into high rise buildings in New York; it ended with robotic planes reigning missiles onto villages in the desert sands. It started with Bush and ended with Obama. From boom to bust, the cycle of American capitalism kept spinning.

September 11 haunts the 2000s, a spectral shadowy ghost. The decade can only be understood through the attack and subsequent U.S. response. America flexed its muscles abroad. At home, we grappled with the nasty realities of life that we had been inoculated against for so long. The violence, the suffering, the uncertainty that so much of the world has to deal with was now a part of the daily American experience. Every movie, at home and abroad, seemed to be asking the same question: What does it mean to be American? And just what is America?

The big entertainment story of the 2000s was television. The Wire, The Shield, Arrested Development, Breaking Bad, Deadwood, Mad Men, Generation Kill, John Adams and The Office are all superb—and superior—entertainments that take the best of movies and combine these with the best of television. The result is an astonishing variety of shows that utilize the language of films, the patience of novels and the length of TV. The comedies got smarter, the dramas more cinematic. Internet-based movie sites allowed fans to watch television shows in huge chunks. Shows that failed, like Arrested Development, developed fan bases after being canceled. The paradigm of television changed.

There were two movie stories. The first was a tidal wave of foreign films, where directors around the world caught the moviemaking bug and, finally, eclipsed their American counterparts. It was the uptick of globalism, a cross-pollination of cinematic ideas.

World cinema re-emerged. Iran and South Korea birthed dozens of great filmmakers, and Germany/Austria stamped the decade with an astonishing output of films. Greater Scandinavia finally stepped out of the shadow of Ingmar Bergman, and Denmark in particular produced a crop of fantastic new filmmakers. Australia re-emerged with a newfound dedication to top-notch genre filmmaking.

Back in the States, the movies were relying more and more on special effects. Streaming movies online started as an oddity and ended the decade as the norm. U.S. movie companies responded with bombastic technique, pushing first big blockbuster movies with budgets that rival some small countries’ GDP, and then later with 3D.  Advances in technology allowed for superheroes to enter the fray, and they soon became a dominant force, crowding out other types of films. What was uncool, even fringe, became popular.

The U.S. filmmaking technique remains incredibly high—even our bad films are often very well made—but what’s often missing is daring, interesting writing, strangeness.

Still, some very fine U.S. movies appeared. The mavericks from the 1970s were still around: Spielberg, Scorsese, even Coppola returned to make a few films. And the filmmakers of the 1990s—Paul Thomas Anderson, Quentin Tarantino, David Fincher and Greg Araki, too—delivered on the early promise of their careers.

The second major movie story was documentaries. Digital film allowed for outsiders, skilled amateurs and old pros to make smaller, cheaper films. There was an explosion of documentaries—partly fueled by the reality TV boom that began in the mid-1990s—on a variety of subjects. I’ve excluded documentaries from my lists so far—they often feel starchy and affected to me, in a way that a great movie is not—but in the 2000s there were so many good ones that I had to include three.

Hollywood has always vacillated between two polar extremes: the lightweight superficiality of Los Angeles—sun-drenched happy people, middle brow melodramas and the unbearable lightness of living in a place with no past, only future. And the gritty artiness of New York—existential cops and drug addicts, struggling actors and the distinct weight of living in the entryway into America and the American dream. It’s new wealth versus old money, the suburbs versus the city. (The rural has never had much of a voice, or a presence, in Hollywood.)

The films of the oughts hovered between these two polar extremes, as did I. After graduating college, I went to my first job as an editor. I left Montgomery for Atlanta, Atlanta for Spain, Spain for Iowa, and Iowa for Chicago. I scrounged and scrimped. I roamed and I rambled. I wrote and wrote and wrote. I collected rejections. I watched too many movies. I started multiple careers. I got married. I even had a child.

Tough, stoic, piercing, beautiful, each frame a master class in moviemaking.

1. Army of Shadows/The White Ribbon—The best film of the 2000s was originally released in the 1960s, but never in the States. It’s Jean Pierre-Melville’s best film, high praise indeed, a beautiful and devastating exploration of the French Resistance during World War II. The Resistance fighters descend into a morally murky world, soon not fighting the Nazi occupiers at all; by movie’s end, they are essentially killing each other off to prevent any leaks to the enemy. The great Lino Ventura plays the lead with a world-weary stoicism, so deadpan that even when he’s killing Nazi soldiers he barely blinks. Each shot could be an Edward Hopper painting. The movie uses a number of techniques, including interior monologues, long tracking shots and shadowy lighting, and has some harrowing scenes, including multiple executions. But the movie unfolds with such a serene beauty—at times it feels like the visual equivalent of a Bach violin concerto—that the treacherous, violent world of the French Resistance feels radiant.

Darkness at the edge of town. A tour through small-town hell.

The White Ribbon— Director Michel Haneke appeared on the scene in the late 1980s, and made many interesting films. They shared a number of traits, including vicious characters, pointless violence, and beautiful compositions that mask a detached view of human depravity. I find his early films to be mechanical, cold, and annoying. His take on Kafka is humorless and pressed clean of eroticism (although dimpled with sex). Funny Games is brutal and brutalizing, unsubtle and punishing to the viewer. Then he made the excellent Cache (number 9 on the list). But nothing prepared movie fans for The White Ribbon, a somber, meditative black and white movie on a mysterious series of escalating crimes in a German village before World War I. The movie unfolds at a calm, measured pace, but the subject matter is so unsettling that it feels like a pulpy thriller. There are a few hundred people in the village, including a young tailor (narrating from some future time), his love interest, a misanthropic doctor, his two children, and a number of peasant farmers. The craft of the film is enthralling, and while watching it’s hard to find your moral bearings. Mistreated by the adults, the children begin to mistreat each other. There’s a causal chain of violence, intimidation, manipulation and exploitation. There are suicides and a murder, a bird is impaled ritualistically and a horse is killed. It’s a ghastly small town gothic with socio-political undercurrents. Haneke’s argument, by movie’s end, is clear: the heady stew of oppressive religiosity, racial purity, ethnic intolerance, and crippling poverty results in nothing less than the Nazi party. One to haunt your dreams.

The new pillar of fire—oil—in Paul Thomas Anderson’s best film.

2. There Will Be Blood/The Lives of Others—Paul Thomas Anderson emerged in the early ’90s as a filmmaker with superior talents. Every film was superb, but his adaptation of Upton Sinclair’s Oil is his best film so far, a riveting character study of a driven misanthrope mad for oil prospecting. Daniel Day-Lewis stars as Daniel Plainview, an unscrupulous oilman who begins prospecting on the land of the Sunday family. The teenage son, Eli, is a local fundamentalist preacher, and soon Eli and Plainview are working each against the other for control of the land, the oil, and the hearts and minds of the people of their west Texas town. Anderson’s images are so strong, he makes the whole moviemaking thing seem so easy, and he gets excellent performances from his actors. Anderson’s argument is clear: Oil is money is power. And religion is influence is power is money. And the two together is this country we call America. Feels classic and contemporary at the same time, an amalgamation of all of Anderson’s influences. You can see John Ford and Robert Altman, Orson Welles and Ingmar Bergman, Antonioni and Renoir and Kazan and just about every other great filmmaker since the Lumiere brothers first captured those happy people on the beach.

The dangers of being passive in service to the evil state; you lose your humanity.

The Lives of Others (2006)—Greater Germany—I’m including Austria—had a banner decade. The White Ribbon, Revanche, Downfall, Soul Kitchen, The Beider Meinhoff Complex, and Mostly Martha all came out the 2000s, and every film on this list is an absolute smash. The Lives of Others is the tidiest and most theatrical of the films, made with warmth and love. It follows a stony Stasi agent assigned to ruin the life and career of a well-known East German playwright.  The playwright’s girlfriend is a great stage actress who has been forced into a sexual relationship with a high-ranking East German official. The Stasi agent’s slow realization that the state apparatus he works for is not only flawed but also evil is a wonder of writing and acting. The thawing out of his soul is one of the great stories of redemption. The best thing about this movie, however, is the pacing. The best dramas play out like thrillers, and this movie turns white knuckle before the end.

A devastating portrait of a couple falling in and out of love.

3. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind/Zodiac—Charlie Kaufman often misfires. He’s wordy, precious, self-involved and more interested in internal digressions than telling a good story. (Look at the endings of his movies; they are almost all an unraveling of the story you just spent two hours watching. Synecdoche, New York is a criminal theft of the audience’s time.) He’s clever, often funny and has plenty of ideas, but he’s also solipsistic and, well, annoying. But here, with director Michel Gondry (who carries a predilection towards silliness), Kaufman wrote a great script with an idea ripped from a Philip K. Dick short story. A service will delete an ex-lover from your memory, leaving only tiny little ghosts of that person’s existence. Jim Carrey plays Joel, a man whose impulsive girlfriend, played by Kate Winslett, has paid for the service and had every memory of him surgically removed. Crushed, he decides to do the same, but in the middle of the process, he tries to hold on to the fleeting moments. What follows is a terrifying, and often very funny, surreal journey through his distorted memories. They’re subplots, some great acting, and a devastating portrait of a relationship falling apart. The movie is as visually inventive as the script, with disappearing walls and repeating patterns in libraries and streets. It really feels like peering into someone’s fragile mind, watching the tiny little lights go out. I wish Kaufman had made three films with Gondry instead of Spike Jonze.

The beautiful and terrifying true story of San Francisco’s most notorious serial killer.

Zodiac—The best film ever made about the police mind at work and the intricacy of investigative processes. Director extraordinaire David Fincher recreates the various personalities obsessing over the Zodiac murders in 1970s San Francisco. He cuts no corners, jamming the audience into the morass of paperwork and red tape, the competing law enforcement agencies and the messiness of solving a complicated case. The murder scenes are conducted with technical panache and a slavish devotion to the facts. The result is a movie that feels like the best of documentary and fiction. Fincher is the best craftsman we have, and when he has good material, he is a marvel. This is great material, with a great cast, including Mark Ruffalo, Jake Gyllenhall, Robert Downey, Jr. and Elias Koteas. A crime can shape a city in profound ways.

An artist’s heart, a pianist’s hands, and a gangster’s brain.

4. The Beat That My Heart Skipped/Pusher III—A French adaptation of the 1970s American cult film Fingers, and it’s absolutely stunning. Roman Duris, one of the busiest and best French actors, plays a disturbed young man working as a strong arm for his thuggish, unscrupulous father. His real love, however, is music, something he gave up long ago. But when he stumbles onto a piano tutor, he slides back into his real passion. With one foot in two worlds, he struggles with the existential weight of rehabilitating his soul with music. Meanwhile, his father comes to loggerheads with stone cold gangsters. The original is quirky, intriguing, and ahead of its time, but loses its footing halfway through. The French movie improves on the original’s mistakes. Durain does an excellent job playing an artist who has lost his art, a thug with a nagging conscience. As he rediscovers his gift for music—and the failures that accompany any art—he tries to remove himself from his father’s life. Audiard, the director, went on to make Un Prophet, another very fine crime film.

A drug-addicted middleman in a bewilderingly violent universe.

Pusher III: I Am the Angel of Death—The middle Pusher movie follows Tony, released from prison into an unforgiving world. Tony is a drug addict, cretin and creep, but Mads Mikkelson plays him with a warm humanity, and you end up cheering for him. But the episodic nature of the movie—each scene ends with Tony enduring some new humiliation—makes this the weakest of the three movies. But with Pusher III, director Refn delivers the strongest in the series. Mid-level Drug kingpin Milo—Frank’s enemy in the first movie and sort of lurking around the edges of the second—takes center stage, following 24 hours in his rough and tumble life. Refn frames the drug trade as a high stakes bureaucratic affair, and Milo is in trouble. He receives a shipment of new drugs. A young turk tries to rip him off. His daughter is getting married. He is fighting off his own drug addiction. And some old underworld types are making life difficult for him. And, perhaps worst of all, he’s a terrible cook, and slated to make the food for his daughter’s wedding. Refn mines each small situation for immense tension, and by the end of the film it’s almost unbearable. But there’s humor, too, much more than the first two films, a loosening up. Zlatko Buric, who plays Milo, delivers a sterling performance of a violent man trying to be a decent human being, trying and failing. Unforgettable.

The youth of Brazil, armed and running wild.

5. City of God/Mulholland Drive—A glittering diamond of a gangster film, beautiful, rousing, rambunctious, tragic and sad. Based on a true story, City of God follows a group of young poor Brazilians as they splinter into drug dealers, gangsters, murderers and thieves. The lead is a shy aspiring photographer who winds up, through his childhood group of friends, ensconced in a gang war between rival factions of drug dealers in the slums of Brazil. The movie lurches backwards and forwards in time, using every cinematic trick in the book, and the result is a genre-shattering work of iconoclasm. It’s a more stylized, adult-oriented Pixote—with an absolutely smashing soundtrack—but the hardship of the homeless children, the casual violence, and the petty strivings of the street urchins make City of God one of the best movies of the decade.

The nocturnal side of the dream life, a winding, craggy road through the Hollywood hills.

Mulholland Drive—A return to weird greatness from David Lynch. Lost Highway was an intriguing movie, marred by an overcooked visual style (percolating down from the world of music video that saturated the 90s; parts of Highway look like a Marilyn Manson video). But Highway has its acolytes, and it is a very disturbed movie-going experience. Straight Story was next, a major departure for Lynch and is mostly a success. Mulholland, however, was to be Lynch’s return to television. The first hour or so is the pilot. When the network passed on the project, Lynch took the footage, shot an extra hour or so, and then released it as a film. It’s a quintessential story of Hollywood, movies and acting. (Lynch reveals his hand having Penelope Ann Miller play the super of an apartment building.) The dream logic of the movie can only be understood through the quest for fame. Naomi Watts delivers a star-turning role as a woman bent on becoming a famous actress. She finds in her aunt’s Hollywood apartment a naked woman with no memory of how she got there. Along the way there are gangsters, hitmen, a dream that can kill you, and a theatre with a live show that can drive you mad. Lynch changes the rules once again. Magical, frustrating, and jaw-dropping. It must be experienced.