Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Ten Best of the Decade

This is my list of the ten best pieces of filmmaking in the last decade.

10. The Bad Boys 2 freeway chase (Michael Bay)

It’s a rock solid piece of classical filmmaking. Spielberg’s multiple planes of action and jeopardy are the bedrock of it’s structure. Action is clearly trackable and screen space is defined by car/camera/foreground pivots. Then it introduces a new dynamic to the action film vernacular – the Baybuster POV. Bay and his team invent a camera car with a sloped armored hood that allows direct crashes into the lens.  Smacking objects into cameras isn’t new, but Bay elevates catastrophe ballet by completing these moments with geometric follow up reverses – the reverse of the cars flying the other way. That’s new shit. He violates Hitchcock’s contention that the camera should never be in a position a human being would not be and then blends it seamlessly with a perspective shifting reverse. It’s action cubism: flipping from one perspective and inverting it to another. It rewrote the playbook of how a car chase is conceptualized. Also, it kicks ass.

9. White Stripes Fell In Love With A Girl (Michel Gondry)

This is the quantum mechanics of music videos. It proves that Peter Gabriel’s Sledgehammer has always been overrated. Sledgehammer uses stop motion animation but it is all muscle. It’s simply a replication of the real world using substitutions. It’s beautiful, but it’s a demonstration. Gondry does something far different. He uses analog animation to break down images into the purest abstract shapes, and then dissolves the shapes with wipes and simulated morphs. It’s a three dimensional world collapsing into two dimensions. He’s testing the limits of human perception – between the psychological need to quantify reality and logic in real world space versus the non-spatial process of human musical thought. The purest expression of music as visuals ever made.

8. Nike “Fate” (David Fincher)

Contrary to popular belief, Fincher as a visualist has never been preeningly complex. He is a reductionist, organizing compositions in logical minimalist geometry. His lighting schemes as aesthetically beautiful as they are - are pretty basic. What makes him complex is the narrative completion of very simple graphic ideas, very much like Kubrick or Lynch. The whole is greater than the sum of it’s parts. It’s the moment between the edits that make Fincher special, the relationship between the shots, the cinematic moment you connect in your own head. Nike “Fate” is a commercial that crystallizes this process. The entire narrative is made of two football players who are on a collision course. Each shot is counterpart to the other, moving from left to right, then right to left, until they finally collide as adults. On a shot by shot basis, the visual execution is cold and precise. But the edits in between are spiritual.

7. British Television Comedies (The Office – Ricky Gervase, The IT Crowd – Graham Lineham)


It’s as if the Brits are so preoccupied with social class and structure, comedy gives them a rebellious outlet to deconstruct status, right down to the format of the medium itself. Technically, the mockumentary has been around forever, however Ricky Gervase and Steven Merchant enforce an extreme level of intrusion. The camera is used to trap and contain the subjects, and the characters are aware they are being watched and judged.  This self reflexivity actually motivates their downfall, provoking them to do actions they wouldn’t do if they weren’t filmed. The Christmas Special takes it a step further, dealing with the impact of the documentary’s fame. It’s the ground zero of post modern comedy. Meanwhile as the world replicates this non traditional format, The IT Crowd returns to retro multicam that actually includes a laugh track. But it’s not really multicam, it only feels that way because of the laugh track and lighting. Camera placement is a big part of the show, selectively adding visual reveals and punchlines. Oddly, this is the only comedy today that successfully uses close-ups as punchlines – a comedy cardinal sin.

6. Survivor Season 19 (Mark Burnett)

This is filmmaking at it’s most manipulative. Survivor utilizes the tools of the trade with vicious accuracy. Music, sound, edits, camera, foreshadowing, narration, symbolism. All collectively constructed for maximum suspense, each episode expertly using misdirection to keep the audience witlessly guessing who will be voted off - every single episode. Season 19 is the masterpiece. It accomplishes what Geroge Lucas failed to do in his Star Wars prequels: root for Vader. Russell Hantz begins the season as an arrogant, manipulative, evil villain the audience absolutely despises. He sabotages his own tribe. Drinks all the water, burns all the socks, gloats. He does not change for the rest of the season - at all. Yet by the end, the audience is rooting for him. Because he has convinced us his compeitors are so stupid and shallow they deserve to lose, and the evidence supports him. This violates every screenwriting rule. An anti-hero that does not have an arc. That never redeems himself. That we fall in love with, even more so in failure. We change, not him, and not even the anti-hero of There Will Be Blood managed to do that to the audience. Joseph Campbell’s hero myth bites the dust.

5. Diesel SFW XXX (Keith Schofeld)

This is about as clever as it gets. It’s the work every hipster wished they came up with. It’s the best Spike Jonze work since Fatboy Slim’s “Praise You,” except Spike didn’t direct it. It is this decade’s culmination of a cultural meme began in the 90’s indie film explosion and videos like Sabotage. It is the recycled retro idea reinvented and re-energized. It’s part of the post modern lexicon of art: a dettachment to the real world in favor of  Tarantino’s closed loop of visual sampling and insular cultural riffs. Sex as visual masturbation. Ultimate goal: itself.

On aside note, part of Sabotage’s appeal was that it effectively handled the Beastie Boy’s rap whiteness by mocking it, placing it in context of porno-macho cop shows and old dad clothes. Schofeld’s Diesel ad is a collary for white boy porn. The trick behind the spot isn’t just the fun use of creative censorship. The brilliance is that it knows you can identify every single hidden act because you have watched variations of it all online, and knows you are bored and jaded to all those positions. You are a fucking pervert.

4. AI & Munich (Steven Spielberg)

Steven Spielberg is the greatest cinematic artist that has ever lived and there are no contenders that remotely come close to his genius. Unfortunately, his filmmaking is so seamless I’ve rarely read an analysis of his methodology that remotely scratches the surface of what he does. He has the most naturally psychological eye in cinema. His style hasn’t even been replicated by anyone, because it is so difficult to conceptualize and so deeply personal and specific to him. Too much to get into here, so if you don’t see it, then you just don’t see it, and we'll just agree to differ.

3. The Reviews of Armond White

Filmmaking is a dialogue between the filmmaker and the audience. And let’s make no mistake, the audience has the last word, and the audience who writes that word down is the film critic. A good film critic speaks for the audience. A great film critic speaks for himself. Armond’s reviews are a volatile mix of race and politics and pop, often from an enigmatic personal view that defies classification. His deep thought approach to cinema often brings out some left field ideas and contrarian conclusions. The internet cannot register the films he champions and the idols he tears down. He is often stalked or dismissed. Armond makes such a volatile impact that a baffled Ebert resorted to calling him a troll. But Ebert misses the point here – Armond isn’t just here to celebrate our collective accuracy on which film is better than another. He engages the audience to actively confront or defend their beliefs. Films are made in the audience’s mind, and Armond White is filmmaking.

Also, he’s fucking right about Nicole Kidman.

2. Lost Season 3 (Cuse/Lindelof) / The Hitler Youtube Meme (Everyone)

If you haven’t seen Lost Season 3, skip this. Spoilers.

At the final episode of Season 3, Lost flips the audience’s expectation of form and turns flashbacks into flashforwards. It is a cinematic breakthrough in structural integrity, instantly changing the process in which the audience processes information. From now the audience does not trust the very edits that construct a narrative, signaling their brains to defend themselves. On a primal level, it is the same disorienting act of watching horror movies achieved outside of three dimensional screen space. An overload of disorientation can easily flip into comedy, and that is precisely what the Youtube Hitler videos do. These are two minute clips taken from the movie Downfall and re-subtitled by random people. As each person retitles the clip’s narrative, it plays off the audience’s increasing familiarity of it’s structure: Hitler’s plan, his revelation, his dismissal, his fury, the defeat of the staff, his resignment. Each expectation is imprinted into the audience, and the reveal in every variation works off your collective anticipation. Proof punchlines are structural. Between Lost and Hitler, a clear demonstration of the cinematic mechanics of fear and comedy.

1.    1. Avatar (James Cameron)

We are finally at a juncture where immersive photoreality is proven. William Gibson dislikes giant pop science fiction of this sort, but ironically, this is one of the culminations of his predictions. This is a taste of cyberspace. It is a matter of mass production and porting into other mediums. A world where the fantasy and reality are indestinguishable is a breakthrough beyond filmmaking with implications for politics, religion, sex, materialism, meaning, among others. Pandora isn’t a planet. It’s a box.


  1. actually Pandora is an amphora (greek word for jar)

  2. But the Internet People said The Dark Knight and District 9 are supposed to be the best movies of all time! WTF.

    Nice angle on a Best of the Decade. If Survivor Season 19 is as good as Season 14 (involving Yau-Man's masterminding, and the dramatic mental showdown), I oughta watch more of that show.

  3. The Internet People love comic book movies you can wear an Affliction shirt to.

  4. Is that because of my comment?


  5. No. It's cuz I wore Affliction to Dark Knight, sadly.

  6. I once bought Mark Palermo a Gondry box set for his birthday, but he already had it, so I had to take it back and buy a different gift under duress. So I got him an Astroboy box set, and it basically ruined his birthday. But it wasn't my fault that he'd pre-empted my perfectly thoughtful present with a bout of selfish personal video-library fluffing. He should've waited for me to buy it for him.

    Also, this list is effing definitively awesome in every way and that's really my only comment about that.

  7. I never pegged Palermo as a Gondry fan. 1. Gondry has never made a Fishbone video. 2. Gondry has never made an Italian-teens-gone-bad slasher flick with "Fury" in the title. Suspension Fury, TeenAngst Fury, Furio 2000, etc.

    He still hasn't returned my copy of Fasterio Furioso starring Asia Argenta and Tony Danza.

  8. aw hell. fasterio furioso was what I was going to get him this year.

  9. Very insightful commentaries in this post, I learned a great deal by reading your descriptions. What influenced your ability to dissect visual storytelling in this way? I find it difficult to locate instructive learning material that is on this level.