A Fight to the Finish


For as long as I can remember, I have thought of myself as a daughter of the movies—their vestal virgin, their Cassandra, or just a 20th-century fox. And now the century of the movies, my century, is over. The cinema will go on, of course, though not as film; but it was as film that it shaped the history and the imagination of the 20th century. You might argue that television usurped the primacy of the movies 50 years ago, but television is basically a delivery system—it delivers people to products, information, and ideology. To the degree that it’s an art form, TV is parasitic on the movies. And art is what I’m talking about here—old-fashioned, 20th-century modernist art with film as its definitive medium.

The delivery system of television and its elaboration in the home entertainment center prepared us for the digitalized, electronic future of the movies. The indexical aspect of film—the fact that light and shadow recorded on a strip of chemically treated celluloid is evidence of something in the actual world—is what will be missed in the digital future.

What will also be lost is the illusory and mysterious deep space of film, a space where subjectivity can be projected and reconfigured. There is a canon in which great films are defined by the radical exploration of that space. That canon (which is most compatible with my aesthetic sensibility) stretches from Feuillades’s Les Vampires through the collected films of Godard to Wong Kar-wai’s Fallen Angels. It includes the great filmmakers of the American avant-garde (Warhol, Snow, Jacobs, Barbara Rubin, the bombastic but irrefutable Brakhage) as well as many Hollywood filmmakers, Welles being the preeminent. In terms of this canon, the most provocative Hollywood film of 1999 was David Fincher’s Fight Club. An action flick that’s all about interiority, it marries photographic and digital elements to create a film space so new it renders the traditional vocabulary of pans, tilts, and tracks irrelevant. No other film thrilled me aesthetically as much as Fight Club, and had the narrative lived up to the filmmaking, it would have been my film of the year. The problem with Fight Club is not that it’s immoral or fascistic, as many critics have protested, but merely that it suffers from an error in filmmaking logic: When you have two actors side by side on the screen, it’s impossible to accept that one of them has merely been the figment of the other’s imagination. Too flawed to fit with the others on my top 10, Fight Club demands a special category. More than any other film of the year, it suggests a tantalizing future.

1999 TOP 10

1 Flowers of Shanghai Hou Hsiao-hsien

2 Topsy-Turvy Mike Leigh

3 Leila Dariush Mehrjui

4 Holy Smoke Jane Campion

5 Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train Patrice Chéreau

6 Being John Malkovich Spike Jonze

7 Eyes Wide Shut Stanley Kubrick

8 I Stand Alone Gaspar Noé

9 eXistenZ David Cronenberg

10 Dogma Kevin Smith

The alternative 10 (in a less opulent year, any or all of them would have made the first list): Fight Club (David Fincher), Last Night (Don McKellar), Rosetta (Dardenne brothers), The War Zone (Tim Roth), Khrustaliov, My Car! (Alexei Gherman), The Lovers on the Bridge (Leos Carax), Autumn Tale (Eric Rohmer), All About My Mother (Pedro Almodóvar), The Limey (Steven Soderbergh), Go (Doug Liman). Four runners-up: Romance (Catherine Breillat), The Iron Giant (Brad Bird), The Dreamlife of Angels (Erick Zonca), Summer of Sam (Spike Lee)


Most ecstatic film moments of 1999 (because we should desire nothing less): the opening of Fight Club; the end of Last Night; the last 10 minutes of Topsy-Turvy; the concluding aerial shot of Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train; the repeated sight gag of bodies catapulting onto the embankment of the New Jersey turnpike in Being John Malkovich; and, in its entirety, Flowers of Shanghai

Greatest retrospectives: Robert Bresson at MOMA, Hou Hsiao-hsien at the Walter Reade

Films I saw at festivals this year whose release I look forward to next year: Orphans (Peter Mullan), Beau Travail (Claire Denis), and if some exhibitor has the courage, Nightfall (Fred Kelemen)


1 JLG/JLG Jean-Luc Godard

2 The Portrait of a Lady Jane Campion

3 The Age of Innocence Martin Scorsese

4 Fallen Angels Wong Kar-wai

5 Goodbye South, Goodbye Hou Hsiao-hsien

6 Safe Todd Haynes

7 My Own Private Idaho Gus Van Sant

8 Thelma and Louise Ridley Scott

9 Coming to Terms With Death Pascale Ferran

10 Crash David Cronenberg

Absurd to omit: To Sleep With Anger (Charles Burnett), Outer and Inner Space (Andy Warhol), Kids (Larry Clark), New York Ghetto Fish Market (Ken Jacobs), Naked (Mike Leigh), I Can’t Sleep (Claire Denis), Sonatine (Takeshi Kitano), Lessons of Darkness (Werner Herzog), Dead Man (Jim Jarmusch), The Match Factory Girl (Aki Kaurismäki)

Director of the decade: Call it a photo finish, with the narrative classicism of Hou Hsiao-hsien barely edging out the kinetic and emotional immediacy of Wong Kar-wai.


My rule for this ludicrous category was arbitrarily to limit my choices to North America and Western Europe (thus reinforcing a hegemony I claim to despise) and to rule out all comedies (thus slighting pleasure at its most direct).

1 Rules of the Game Jean Renoir

2 Man with a Movie Camera Dziga Vertov

3 The Rise to Power of Louis XIV

Roberto Rossellini

4 Au Hasard Balthazar Robert Bresson

5 Vertigo Alfred Hitchcock

6 Pierrot le Fou Jean-Luc Godard

7 Wavelength Michael Snow

8 Jeanne Dielman Chantal Akerman

9 Citizen Kane Orson Welles

10 Raging Bull Martin Scorsese