best film:  2046 from WKW

  • Four years after In the Mood for Love, WKW’s follow-up is the third and (so far) final film in the unofficial Love trilogy (Days of Being Wild from 1990 being the first) featuring Tony Leung as Chow Mo-Wan and Maggie Cheung (here only as a cutaway memory really) as Su Li-zhen.
  • The story is more opaque than most of WKW’s films, with the added layer of Chow Mo-Wan writing science fiction – and 2046 (on top of the political meaning-the 50-year period the Chinese Government promised to let Hong Kong remain as it is) having two meanings: the hotel room number and the year of the setting of the surrealistic science fiction world within the film.
  • The narrative ducks back and forth between the late 1960s and 2046 segments (Faye Won and Carina Lau play androids—Carina Lau is also Lulu).
  • An inspired shot, reverse shot, of Carina Lau with the red curtains blocking 60% of the screen (WKW uses the curtains instead of the back of Leung’s head)- a variation on this will be repeated later with a drunk Bai Ling (Ziyi Zhang) but WKW uses green instead of red in the second instance. These shots are worthy of Antonioni- which is fitting given the inevitable comparisons involving ennui.
  • Faye Wong’s story is largely in this sort of jade color. Gong Li’s segment (the last one) is black. At the 24-minute mark the operatic soundtrack (the cue for Faye Wong’s character) accompanies an immaculate shot, Wong depressingly takes a slow motion drag of her cigarette in her emerald-soaked room
  • The full use of the frame in so many compositions
  • As far the production team goes- Christopher Doyle is back as cinematographer (in his last collaboration to date with WKW) and William Chang (not half as well known as Doyle and he should be) does not only the transcendent production design—but the costume work (1960s chic and eye-popping wallpaper/color) as well- just as he did for In the Mood for Love.
  • The Connie Francis music (a beautiful curation) accompanies Ziyi Zhang’s character- including her entrance in the mirror (wearing one of William Chang’s show stopping dresses).

WKW is always the formal master- not only pairing the actresses with music (no song is played just once), but to specific settings (the pay phone that is obstructed) like the sign for the Oriental Hotel (used again and again—also—always partially–never in full view).

  • these are memories, years have gone by…each woman (portrayed by some of the best actresses in the world) in Chow Mo-Wan’s sphere gets her time
  • It does feel a bit messier (or at least more extraneous) formally than WKW’s 2000 masterpiece- the day/date titles and the black and white photographed segments are introduced rather late in the film and do not feel set up correctly—but perhaps another viewing will help here.
  • The interiors are just as strong as WKW’s best work —the perforated glass, the mirrors, the color-drenched hallways. The Nat King Cole (back again!) Christmas song is played again and again—and WKW’s work with color is as strong here as anything he has done- lush greens and reds- tied to the song
  • A standout sequence (in a 129-minute filled with them) is a scene where WKW utilizes these sliding dissolves on top of each other in one particular Christmas where Tony’s character dines with Faye Wong’s.
  • WKW’s trademark step processing is used in 2046– the contrasting speeds in the foreground and background for one flashback in 1969 as Tony is isolated in slow motion with everything else at the Casino sped up around him.

The cast is comprised of a who’s who of the best actors from Hong Kong and China during this era. Tony Leung (the center of it all here) has the greatest achievement in 2046. He is followed by Ziyi Zhang, Faye Wong in that order— Gong Li is next, but her segment is short and her achievement not on the same level—and as mentioned previously the great Maggie Cheung is used sparingly.

each composition worthy of a standalone showcase… but each also part of a far grander collection

  • WKW ends with the repetition of the opening lines via Tony Leung’s voiceover. This is an urban sadness, smoking, drinking, loneliness, lost love, memories—auteur cinema.

 

most underrated:  Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator, Yimou Zhang’s House of Flying Daggers and Pedro Almodovar’s Bad Education  should all be on the They Shoot Pictures Don’t They top 1000 consensus list by now. However, they at least have respectable spots on the 21st century TSPDT list. This makes Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s A Very Long Engagement the most underrated film of 2004– as it, unbelievably, cannot find a spot on the top 1000 for the 21st century.

From Almodovar’s Bad Education. The opening credit titles are very Hitchcockian—Saul Bass-like. They are stunning- Almodvar is a master of opening credit sequences– setting the tone for the beauty to follow. Vibrant colors, expressionistic- reds galore—stunning stained glass window shots and background detail – every background is meticulously designed.

Almodovar has influences in melodrama and screwball comedy- but this is on the thriller/noir/Hitchcock side (a side that other Sirkian’ acolyte auteurs  (Fassbinder, Todd Haynes) do not have) of his influences while clearly being one of the strongest films of this very distinct auteur

from House of Flying Daggers. The wide shot with two foes separated has been done countless times before- but few if any can paint the background like Yimou Zhang

this makes for an admirable companion piece and running mate to 2002’s Hero

choreography and color – the meeting of genre cinema and high art

Jeunet’s follow-up to Amelie is harder to wrap your arms around- but I am not convinced it isn’t the superior film

there are at least a dozen compositions of this quality left off this page for the sake of brevity

every frame is dipped in Jeunet’s trademark yellow tint- like Fincher meets James Gray’s The Immigrant (2013)- also an extremely handsome film

 

most overrated: Tropical Malady from Apichatpong Weerasethakul is ranked in the TSPDT top 250 (#221 right now to be exact) which is clear masterpiece territory. This makes it the #2 film of 2004. Sideways would be #4 and The Intruder from Claire Denis would be #6 and unfortunately none of these three have much of a claim to a spot in the top 10 of the year.

 

gems I want to spotlight: It is Under the Skin in 2013 that finally brought some recognition to Jonathan Glazer, but I am not yet certain that 2004’s Birth is not just as good (or nearly). It has its adamant defenders- but it was widely dismissed in 2004.  Mysterious Skin (if you can stomach some of the subject matter) is inventively crafted cinema. Lastly, Jonathan Demme’s The Manchurian Candidate may not quite live up to the 1962 original, but Demme’s penchant for close-ups makes this auteur cinema still and who can argue with Denzel and Meryl Streep in the leads?

 

few, if any, have done closeups as well as Jonathan Demme

Birth– a shot from Glazer and cinematographer Harris Savides (Zodiac, Elephant) that should be hanging on a wall in a museum

 

trends and notables:

  • 2046 and WKW feels like not only the best film- but the cinematic story of the year coming from one of the great recent artists the medium has produced.  2046 falls into the category of a masterpiece that has the burden of following one of the great films of all-time. This is WKW’s Magnificent Ambersons or his The Master– an utterly remarkable film- as long as someone was not coming in expecting Citizen Kane, There Will Be Blood (or In the Mood for Love of course).
  • Shrek 2, Spider Man 2 dominate the box office. Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ is a far bigger talking point film though in 2004.
  • Charlie Kaufman’s run from 1999-2004 now over a period of six years needs to be recognized. The first two were with Spike Jonze (who would eventually prove himself without Kaufman), but 2004’s masterpiece is directed by Michel Gondry. Gondry’s utter lack of impressive resume outside of this collaboration with Kaufman helps bolster the case for this writer to be heralded as the genius (recognizing this is a collaborative art form of course).

This rich period of work from Charlie Kaufman includes Being John Malkovich, Adaptation and now, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

Clint Eastwood best period of work as a director is in the 2000s– easy top 10 of the year films in back to back years in 2003 and 2004 with Mystic River and Million Dollar Baby. The shot of Tim Ribbons on the 2003 page fits perfectly with this composition. Eastwood’s muted color scheme (faded greens, blues, grays) pervades both films as well.

  • With All About My Mother (1999), Talk to Her (2002) and Bad Education (2004)- this is the best period of work from the great Pedro Almodovar as well.
  • 2004 marks the first archiveable films for Paweł Pawlikowski (My Summer of Love) and Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead)

Shaun of the Dead initially gained traction because of the laughs (Simon Pegg and Nick Frost are riotous) but Edgar Wright sure shows promise here behind the camera- it is very rare to see a tracking shot of this quality in a straight comedy. The repetition of the tracking shot (from his house to the convenience store) is not only technically superb but crucial for the comedy of the scene to work as well. Wright would get better, but even early on, he shows himself to be a ridiculously talented editor with Requiem For a Dream­/Aronofsky-like zoom editing.

  • Michael Mann’s Collateral may actually be the biggest trend notable here in 2004 with Mann pushing digital. He is front and center there and way ahead of many. . If you are going to make a push for a new technology, this is a great way to back it up.

Collateral was one of the first big films shot on digital—Mann made a point of this at the time of release talking about how most of the other digital efforts up to that point were trying to simulate the film look—and he was going for something different in the lighting. At the 58-minute mark Mann has a magnificent cinematic painting – he uses the wider frame canvas here to put Max’s taxi (played by Jamie Foxx with a big 2004) on the left of the frame with the skyline off the right. Few (Fincher), if any, could do darkness like Mann- this is all set during one night.

  • Ziyi Zhang is everywhere coming off of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in 2000 including two 2004 films (2046 and House of Flying Daggers). Same for Naomi Watts (three films- I Heart Huckabees, The Assassination of Richard Nixon, We Don’t Live Here Anymore), Jude Law (three films- The Aviator, I Heart Huckabees, Closer) and Mark Ruffalo (Collateral, Eternal Sunshine and We Don’t Live Here Anymore). All of these actors are really capitalizing on success in 1999/2000/2001.
  • This year also marks the archiveable debut of one of the all-time greats in Marion Cotillard. She gets her start in the archives in A Very Long Engagement.

 

best performance male: Tony Leung from 2046 probably edges out Leonardo DiCaprio in The Aviator for the top slot in 2004 but there is both quality at the top with these two and solid depth in this category this year. As with all of WKW’s works, 2046 is more about mood than plot– it is about “recapturing memories” as only a melancholic Tony Leung can say and embody. DiCaprio’s studied Texan vibrato voice is inspired. If you look back over his career this is the film/year where he took a major leap forward. Jim Carrey and Ethan Hawke in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Before Sunset are not far off pace as far as the best work is concerned in 2004. Tarantino loves to resurrect his cinema heroes as he shows off once again with David Carradine‘s work in Kill Bill Vol. 2. Bill is big character and Carradine provides plenty of screen presence- and let us not forget about his fabulous superman monologue. Gael Garcia Bernal‘s string of quality work continues in 2004 with Almodovar’s Bad Education. This is his second mention already in the decade (Y tu mamá también in 2001) and that’s omitting his part in Amores Perros in 2000. In Bad Education there is a little Russian nesting doll story within a story within a story going on and Gael Garcia Bernal warrants appreciation for playing variations on a character in all three threads. Lastly here in 2004 both Morgan Freeman and Clint Eastwood deserve mention for their work in Million Dollar Baby.

Scorsese’s The Aviator is stunning to look at, it moves with an incredible speed (it’s an easy a 170-minute watch as there is), and it features DiCaprio giving us a tour-de-force lead performance (debatably his best). What Scorsese has achieved here color grading is important. He was inspired by the time period so in post-production he recreated the two-strip Technicolor. As the movie moves along (and we go decade by decade) the color changes. The effect on the front half of the film is palpable. The film is gorgeous. White shirts look mint, the golf course is blue, the peas are blue—the beet field a makes for a stunning, glowing art-on-the-wall production design/setting. It’s on par with the Coens and Roger Deakins grading the color in O, Brother Where Art Thou? in 2000.

 

best performance female:  Five total mentions in 2004 for this category and the first mention could actually go to any of the top four actors. Kate Winslet is a ball on fire in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Carrey is the steady center of the film (feels odd writing that- haha) but Winslet is who you cannot keep your eyes off of. Julie Delpy (Before Sunset) and Hilary Swank (Million Dollar Baby) do the best work of their career in 2004. Ziyi Zhang would be here just for her work in 2046– but when you add House of Flying Daggers on top of that she may have as good a case as any to the top slot in 2004. The final mention is Cate Blanchett for her work in The Aviator. Her Katharine Hepburn performance goes beyond mimicry. Blanchett is wonderful-  it does take a minute to adjust to her quirkiness– she (as Katharine Hepburn) and Leo’s Hughes are so idiosyncratic (he is a multi-tasking dynamo, cannot hear, a germaphobe) and big – great characters—but she goes toe to toe with him and they have a great intimate scene talking about how they are not like everyone else

Delpy’s Nina Simone “Baby, you are going to miss that plane” ending is sublime

 

top 10

  1. 2046
  2. Kill Bill: Vol. 2
  3. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
  4. Million Dollar Baby
  5. Before Sunset
  6. The Aviator
  7. Bad Education
  8. A Very Long Engagement
  9. House of Flying Daggers
  10. Vera Drake

 

Vera Drake is another superlative effort from Mike Leigh. The post-WWII (November 1950) period detail production design is an artistic triumph. The immaculate wallpaper, the costume work, the tea kettle cover—no detail too small for Leigh, Dick Pope (his DP) and Eve Stewart’s production design. This is a time capsule film. It could be from 1954, 1984, 2004 and it’ll look just as good in 2034. Like nearly all of Leigh’s work this is a blue-collar story, observational and authentic. He is a realist. There is a jaw-dropper (I’d call it a show off shot if I didn’t know Leigh well enough to know he wouldn’t do that) frame art on a wall shot– and use of lighting as they walk to Phil Davis’ character’s work—proof of Leigh’s evolution as a visual director since the 1980s. Roger Deakins?, Blade Runner? Nope- it is Mike Leigh.

splashes of color and sun pouring in through the window in Miyazaki’s Howl’s Moving Castle

Lucrecia Martel’s second film, The Holy Girl, picks right up where her debut left off with the great staging and layering in the frame. Instead of the lounging, drinking bourgeois we have professors at a crowded hotel/conference center and catholic school girls in school. Bunuel for sure is an influence- hypocrisy in the intellectual elite—but Martel is quieter in her critiques. Shallow focus—goes with the surrealism scenes and close-up emphasis—a lot of the film is almost shot like the close-up whisper scene in Lost in Translation. The staging is very impressive- it is a dedicated aesthetic choice- repeatedly shows characters in half of frame.

from Jia Zhangke’s The World. As always with Jia Zhangke, there is a habitual dedication to the background as well as foreground action

the writing is a notch below his best work but The Life Aquatic delivers one of the greatest single cinematic paintings of 2004.  Wes Anderson’s films are usually about camaraderie- they all put their hand on him during the climax chase of the shark. Of course it is very weird and whimsical. The diorama here with the boat- specifically like a movie set cut into section is reminiscent of Jerry Lewis’ The Ladies Man dollhouse.

staging like the bowling pins from Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai— or the centipede staging in Sanjuro

Alexander Payne’s Sideways blends a poignant character study (really, it is three-headed character study) with perceptive comedy. It is told in a largely invisible visual style by Payne. At the 93-minute the best frame in the film is the shot of the two friends on the park bench looking- a superior cinematic painting

The Incredibles is another example of Pixar’s winning streak

from The Aviator- Scorsese sets the frame marvelously with that opening- it is an awesome composition-  he and Robert Richardson (director of photography here) cue the lighting to roll up.

Tarantino’s The Searchers shot from Kill Bill

 

 

Archives, Directors, and Grades

2046 – WKW MP
3-Iron- Ki-duk Kim R
A Very Long Engagement – Jeunet MS
Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy – McKay R
Bad Education – Almodovar MS
Before Sunset- Linklater MS/MP
Birth- Glazer HR
Breaking News – To R/HR
Closer – M. Nichols R/HR
Collateral – M. Mann R/HR
Crash- Haggis R
Down To the Bone- Granik HR
Downfall – Hirschbiegel R/HR
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind- Gondry MP
Finding Neverland- Forster R
Garden State- Braff R
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban – Cuaron R
Head-on – Akin R
Howl’s Moving Castle- Miyazaki R
I Heart Huckabees- D. Russell R
Kill Bill: Vol. 2– Tarantino MP
Kings & Queen- Desplechin R
Kinsey- Condon R
Layer Cake-Vaughn R
Mean Creek – Estes R
Million Dollar Baby- Eastwood MP
Moolaadé- Sembene R
My Summer of Love–  Pawlikowski R
Mysterious Skin- Araki R
Nobody Knows- Koreda
Ray- Hackford R
Shaun of the Dead – E. Wright R/HR
Sideways – Payne R/HR
The Assassination of Richard Nixon- Mueller R
The Aviator – Scorsese, DiCaprio MS
The Bourne Supremacy – Greengrass
The Door in the Floor- T. Williams R
The Holy Girl – Martel R/HR
House of Flying Daggers- Yimou Zhang MS
The Incredibles -Bird HR
The Intruder- Denis R
The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou– W. Anderson R/HR
The Manchurian Candidate- Demme R
The Motorcycle Diaries- Salles
The Sea Inside- Amenábar R
The Woodsman- Kassell R
The World – Zhangke Jia HR
Tropical Malady – Weerasethakul HR
Undertow – Gordon Green R
Vera Drake – Leigh HR
We Don’t Live Here Anymore – Curran R

 

 

*MP is Masterpiece- top 1-3 quality of the year film

MS is Must-See- top 5-6 quality of the year film

HR is Highly Recommend- top 10 quality of the year film

R is Recommend- outside the top 10 of the year quality film but still in the archives