A swan induced car crash sets the scene for one of Peter Greenaway’s most outrageous films (and that’s saying a lot). See, the crash claimed the lives of two sisters, wives of twin zoologists engaged in the most morose experiments imaginable, but there was one survivor, an enigmatic woman soon to be an amputee. And as only Greenaway could conceive, the twins strike up a steamy ménage a trois with the legless seductress, all while taking their experiments to staggering new heights. Strictly on that plot description you ought to know if this film is for you. Clearly my threshold for the perverse is through the roof, if not blown to smithereens thanks to a few too many viewings of Pink Flamingos, but A Zed and Two Noughts is art porn at its most intellectual. The unstoppable collaborative force of Greenaway, cinematographer Sacha Vierny, and musical impresario Michael Nyman assaults the senses, most shockingly with frequent time-lapse snapshots of biological decay. The score in particular is unrelenting, ceding on occasion to the unsettling tune of “The Teddy Bear Picnic” which at that point ceases to be the whimsical children’s tune you once knew it as.
It’s understandable where such a film can go wrong for people. Greenaway is guilty of just about every charge leveled against him; pretension, indecency and ostentatious staging, and he hones these qualities into a very distinct, often off-putting aesthetic, but to allow yourself to be turned off too quickly misses the point. His aim is not to corrupt, not even to revolt, but to most seriously consider ideas ranging the whole intellectual spectrum from politics to art to science. A Zed and Two Noughts is his most scientific film, and perhaps the oddest condemnation of Creationism there ever was. Yet the film doesn’t stoop so low as to hammer a thesis over your head. Rather, omnipresent themes form pieces in a meticulously crafted puzzle, and from the images of primal lust, sanctimonious megalomania and decay (both human and animal), we’re free to draw our own conclusions. Its considerable influence on David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers is impossible to overlook.
The New World plays best when viewed on as large a screen and in as intimate a setting as possible. It’s the kind of film where from the moment it starts, you forget everything around you and form the most organic connection to its simple story and lyrical images. And some of those things you forget will remain forgotten, the stigma, for instance, that you’ve no doubt built up against Colin Farrell (because he’s tremendous here); or the way you view romantic epics (because I unabashedly love them, and not a one stacks up to this); and if you’re really lucky, any lingering memory of Disney’s borderline offensive attempt at the Pocahontas story in the middle of what was otherwise their greatest decade. You can forget those things, but you’ll be hard pressed to forget the overwhelming beauty of The New World, nor the unfettered performance of Q’Orianka Kilcher.
Terrence Malick outdoes himself in every way possible. Yes, it’s a better looking film than even Days of Heaven, which is also to the credit of Emmanuel Lubezki and his ever graceful lens, but Malick’s touch is all over this. The pace is perfectly measured, quickly and effectively bounding through the necessary historical milestones and dwelling at length on the quiet moments – the struggles in communication, the communion with nature – that amount to a romance stronger than amorous dialogue and saccharine scenes can deliver. For a historical epic, romantic variety or not, the plot is surprisingly stripped down. Simple, but it hits. And the film has no greater asset than Kilcher. Her performance stands as my second favorite of the decade, partly for how effortlessly she commands the screen (and the attention of everyone within it) and largely for giving life to a character who otherwise could have came off like any number of historical performances –the ones that contain the depth of a few paragraphs in a text book. In her, Malick found perhaps the one person radiant enough to feel at ease in his gorgeous cinematography. From Kilcher and Farrell to the set and score to the scope of the whole thing, he orchestrates it so naturally, making The New World one of the unqualified masterpieces of the aughts.
Orson Welles, the precocious conjurer of cinema, pulls his greatest feat not in one of his own films, but in Carol Reed’s model noir The Third Man, as he assumes the role of enigmatic Harry Lime and with a flash of light, a Cheshire cat grin and the obstruction of a passing truck, elevates him to the pantheon of legendary screen characters. Lime’s out of the shadows entrance is the grandest ever captured on film, wholly earned after nearly half a film spent building the myth of this crime king of Vienna, the titular third man. And he’s not merely a plot device; he’s a fascinating creature living by his own moral code, fully understood in his conversation with Holly Martin’s atop the Ferris wheel, a scene which can’t help but evoke the idea of the Devil tempting Christ from a cliff overlooking Galilee. Lime’s screentime is limited, but his feline shadow hangs over every frame of the film, long before he even enters the picture. And apparently not content with having made the grandest entrance ever, he bows out in no less memorable a fashion.
But it would be an egregious oversight to accredit all the film’s success to Welles. Reed, sadly shown little affection aside from this readily embraced masterpiece, makes a series of bold decisions that pay off most remarkably. The crooked cinematography of Robert Krasker most obviously sets the film apart, harking back to noir’s roots in German Expressionism only without the twisted stage sets. Vienna seems all the more dark and disorienting when viewed at an angle, and like Holly we feel as though our world has been turned upside down. Second is that unshakable zither score, composed by Anton Karas who Reed came upon as the film was in production. But virtually everything here works just as well as these showier elements, from a string of terrific performances (not the least of which is Joseph Cotton as the hapless Holly) to the impeccable lighting design. It’s a rare perfect picture, which isn’t even something I would say about most films ranked even higher on my list, and I’m always ecstatic to find myself in total agreement with a film’s reputation. One of the great British films in a decade overflowing with them.
Belá Tarr seems a spiritual successor to the great Andrei Tarkovsky, his bleak (never brief) meditations on life and faith evoking a pervasive central Eurasian atmosphere while always finding a certain grace – hell, let’s call it art – in these surroundings. The marathon that is Satantango calls more attention to itself on running time alone, but it’s the more recent Werckmeister Harmonies that contains Tarr’s greatest accomplishments. There’s that magic number, 39, the number of shots that comprise this two and a half hour film, and the number of those shots that go down in the film history books is staggering. The opening scene sets the bar high, a slow burn stroke of poetic staging in a dreary Hungarian pub. That’s before the circus rolls into town, bringing with it a gargantuan whale carcass, a mystical and dangerous prince, and forces of chaos biding their time before turning this sleepy Eastern European town into a hotbed of unrest and upheaval. In the film’s most extraordinary scene – and by scene I mean single shot – the main character flees down a desolate street soon to be overrun by a gathering mob. It’s a trying couple of hours, but the reward is one of the unshakable haunting visions of cinema; a masterpiece that could belong to any decade, but being so recent seems proof enough that film as art is far from dead.
Justifying my affection for 80s animation is not such an easy task, but there’s a murky aura surrounding the design, and especially the soundtracks, that makes some of the shining examples feel all the more epic (Akira, Gandahar, The Black Cauldron, The Secrets of Nimh, Castle In the Sky, The Great Mouse Detective, Ralph Bakashi’s Lord of the Rings). Though I wouldn’t necessarily claim the superiority of these over the more polished 90s animated fare, they’ve nonetheless got something those later films are in want of, and since I’m a child of the 90s, I don’t think it’s nostalgic value. Maybe it’s the lack of musical numbers, or perhaps the darker tones that hang over the worlds of these films, but his highly atmospheric age of animation makes a fascinating era to look back on, one that seemed to die upon release of The Little Mermaid, never to return.
The best of such films is Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, the film that put grandmaster of animation Hayao Miyazaki on the map, and established many of the themes he would continue to explore throughout his career. Nausicaa is the most perfect of all Miyazaki creations (not perfect as in best-conceived character, but as in quite literally without flaws – she is remarkably brave, deeply empathetic and impossibly beautiful) which might make her less interesting were this a character study, but it’s a sweeping fantasy adventure of the grandest order and Nausicaa is nothing less or more than a heroine we want to cheer on.
It’s also simply gorgeous to look at. Miyazaki creates an entire planet’s ecology long before James Cameron got to fooling around with his new-fangled computer program and from crystalline caverns to poisonous forests to the tranquil valley where Nausicaa hails from, an entire world is captured in one glorious frame after another. Such imagery is paired with Joe Hisashi’s equally surreal and luminous score, its haunting synth sounds justification for a decade’s worth of cringeworthy applications of such techniques, and both the grand swell of the main theme and the eerie chant on the forest air being among the more beautiful compositions ever created for film. Miyazaki revisited many of the ideas here in Princess Mononoke with great success, but even then he couldn’t quite recapture the overwhelming feeling of pure adventure that he created here.