A pungent allegory of class-relations in Thatcherite England, Peter Greenaway's 1990 masterpiece The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover is like an El Greco painting come to life, in all its gruesome glory. A master of abstraction, Greenaway boils down the noise and messiness of people to show what human nature is in all its naked cannibalistic bile, all done via bravura compositions alluding to the Old Masters that arrest the eye even as they stir the soul. Cinema at its best is a vehicle for intellectual provocation, and the erudite Greenaway, whose intricately designed films challenge and confound viewers as only the greatest artists can, remains among the most vital filmmakers working today. A pleasure from beginning to end.
Another vital filmmaker is Wayne Wang, whose adaptation of the classic Amy Tan novel The Joy Luck Club provides a richly imagined oral history of the Asian-American experience. Tan correctly identifies the callous misogyny of Asian men as the central culprit of Asian female oppression, and her sober, balanced portraits of the sexless bean-counting accountant and various wife-beaters show a generosity of spirit that extends even to the most disgusting of our species. At the end of this marvelous film, when June finally reunites with her sisters and must inform them of their mother's fate, you'd be inhuman if you don't flood the floor with tears. A weepie to rival the best of Douglas Sirk, or maybe even Beaches, The Joy Luck Club ranks among the most heartbreaking movies ever made.
Simultaneously heartbreaking and uplifting, Robert Zemeckis' seminal Forrest Gump has been tarred by cynics as a paean to retards. Not so. While it's true that Hanks' nuanced Gump suffers from mental handicaps, the film is less a celebration of his idiocy than a celebration of the human spirit, which is what movies do at their best. Forrest, whose good heart leads him to just the right place at the right time, is a symbol of all of us who simply want to live life by the rules, listen to our mother, follow scripture and hope for the best. It's a prescient film that documents the triumph of the Forrests and the fall of the counter-culture types like Jenny, who, like many in her generation, loses her way and whittles away the American spirit. (The movie, made at the height of the Clinton-era, presages the George W. Bush ascent.) God, country, apple pie, and Forrest Gump -- that's what this country is all about.
Saving the best for last, Lars von Trier's unrivaled masterpiece Dancer in the Dark is everything art should be and more. An audacious cinema verite musical, the rigorous von Trier erects formal rules as if to demonstrate that great art transcends any formal limitations. In Dancer, Von Trier boldly disregards such philistine concerns as plausibility, historical/geographical accuracy, motivation, visual coherence, or "characterization" to plunge a serrated blade straight into the viewer's heart. Like Francis Bacon, von Trier locates Truth by abtracting the human experience, and in Dancer he renders a stark, religious vision of evil on earth that's as accurate as it is frightful. Bjork, in the best performance captured on film since Falconetti burned at the stake, portrays a mother yearning for freedom and happiness even as her community and her adopted country betray her at every turn. All she wanted was to save her child's eyes, dammit! As we watch the system grind down the helpless naif Selma in the most heartwrenching fashion, we feel like bystanders to an execution, much as many Americans must have felt this week as Terri Schiavo succumbed to those executioners in black robes. Von Trier's brilliance is to at once flaunt the film's anti-realism (by breaking into musical sequences at emotional crescendos) yet still making you care for the saintly Selma as if she were your own mother. Or maybe that's Bjork's genius. Whatever the case, Dancer in the Dark stands as a summit of cinematic art, a movie that crushes you even as it announces that it is doing so.
[I apologize for the obviousness of this post. I can never get into the spirit of these things.]