I rewatched Platform last weekend as the first of two Jia Zhangke films I consider truly worthy of “best of the decade” status – the other is his much overlooked and underrated documentary Useless. Over his prolific output this decade (six features), Jia has made some great cinema – at least one other film, Still Life, can be considered a masterpiece, and 24 City keeps deepening in its layers of meaning – aesthetic, cultural and historical – the more I think about it. But Platform and Useless are really the stand-outs in my book. I entered my re-viewings wondering if Useless was possibly better than Platform, but that possibility was quickly dispeled for me moments into my reviewing of Platform. Apart from being a monumental achievement, the film simply has too much personal significance for me to deny its inevitable place on my top ten list.

But that doesn’t take anything away from Useless, which, after re-watching it this past week, I consider hands down one of the great documentaries of the decade.  I re-read my review from 2007 (never mind that 3 1/2 star rating, it should be at least four), which clearly reflected how much I was still processing this work in my mind. Seeing it again, the three parts work more fluidly as a whole, as if in dialogue with each other, both thematically and visually. Visual matches like the dirt on Ma Ke’s haute couture (a desire to return to a natural, organic relationship between people and products) and the coal dust that blackens miners’ bodies.  Or the mind-numbing shifts in the clothing factory, where workers pass away hours under repetitive movements without speaking a word to anyone vs. Paris fashion models getting undressed and dressed, idly waiting for their show to start, talking about the extreme physical demands of staying still for hours under the spotlight vs. underemployed small-town tailors idly chatting or passing time on a cellphone while waiting for a customer to show up. What links them together is Yu Lik Wai’s incredibly attentive camerwork, which moves fluidly through spaces in masterful tracking shots or sits in a corner taking in the geometric properties of a given workspace and how it influences the dynamic of social interactions within that space.

This is observational documentary filmmaking of the highest order, yet graced with dramatic touches that speak to the director’s inspired manipulations and fictional stagings in order to intensify the connections and bring this film into something more than straight verite (something he does to even more beguiling effect in 24 City). In light of Ma Ke’s fashion show with its bizarre sense of art-as-showmanship in the film’s middle stretch, Jia’s deliberate fictional elements seem to link themselves with Ma Ke’s attempt to dramatize sociological issues the presentation of her work.

Watching Useless again shifted the attention of the Best of the Decade project into the realm of documentary. I went through my screening logs of the past several years and jotted a list of significant documentaries to see if I could come up with a working list to delve further. One name gave me pause for reflection: Adam Curtis. If only because of David Bordwell’s excellent essay reconsidering the definition of “documentary film” published earlier this year on his blog. When I first watched Curtis’ The Power of Nightmares back in 2004, I found it to be one of the most provocative and stimulating documentaries investigating the reasons for the Iraq War and the war against Islamic terrorism; certainly more focused, reasoned and persuasive than the buckshot invective of Fahrenheit 9-11. The film does such a masterfully sophisticated job over its three hour running time of analyzing and intertwining the history and motives of neo-conservatism and radical fundamentalist Islam. By doing so it exposes the aspirations of both ideologies to control their respective spheres of influence by perpetuating a state of social paranoia that effectively terrorizes its citizenry.

Watch The Power of Nightmares on Google Video - Part 1 embedded below:

But towards the end I felt something kind of lacking as the film makes its closing arguments. It doesn’t entertain questions about what makes these ideologies so seductive and influential to John (or Muhummad) Q. Public, and more generally, what sort of ideology could take their place to provide for a safer, more peaceful world. Maybe such an ideology is implied in the film itself and Curtis’ erudite and discerning, perpetually skeptical and subtly snarky narration. The most it seems to offer is that we must always be vigilant and exercise our better judgment whenever ideologies try to captivate us with their utopian visions concealing nightmarish outcomes.

The sensation of watching Adam Curtis’ compulsively watchable films (I went through all ten hours of The Century of the Self, The Power of Nightmares and The Trap within a 24 hour period – once you get sucked in, it’s hard to look away) has been consistent for me through my recent viewings of each of his last three features: initial enthrallment and a sense of revelation, eventually giving way to a feeling of emptiness and even despair at the perpetual folly of human beings in trying to better their world. This was especially true in watching his most recent work, 2007′s The Trap, a revelatory examination of the impact of Game Theory on modern economic and social policy.  For the first hour or so, it stays focused on defining Game Theory, and how economists and social policy architects alike derived grand plans for improving society based on the belief that people’s inherent selfishness could become a driving force for increased innovation, freedom and prosperity for all.  In the second hour or so, its ambitions grow larger, opening into questions about the what defines individual freedom, how the indulgence of personal desire becomes a trap in itself, and the paradox of how institutions that tried to promote ideas of freedom ended up trapping people in systems that created even bigger disparities in wealth and social mobility than has been seen since World War II.  This film was made a full year before the economic meltdown that has put us where we are now, and today it looks downright prophetic.

Watch The Trap on Google Video – Part 1 embedded below:

But by the time the film enters hour three, its steady project of dismantling the authority of a misguided ideology, as with The Power of Nightmares, leaves us with a vacuum. After giving a provocative account of post-invasion Iraq as the ultimate folly of establishing free market society, positing Liberation Theory with its values of revolutionary sacrifice as a sort of antithesis to the individualist underpinnings of Game Theory, and putting in a final warning against overzealous attempts to impose and promote freedom around the world, he leaves us with a hopelessly vague exhortation to embrace “positive, progressive freedom” without delving significantly into what such a kind of freedom is.

I think my key limitation with Curtis is summed up by a quote from an interview near the very end of The Power of Nightmares: “A society that believes in nothing is particularly frightened by a society that believes in anything.” Swap the first “society” with “filmmaker” and you get an idea of what Curtis’ films seem ultimately to be about, and why I feel somewhat empty at the end of watching these films despite having my eyes opened and my brain troubled by so many fascinating provocations about the misguided agendas that have shaped our world. Curtis’ films argue viciously against both ideologues who stand too much for narrow ideals and demagogues who stand for nothing, but the middle ground (which Curtis presumably occupies) remains frustratingly undefined. Maybe the point is to leave the audience with the necessary challenge of defining that middle ground for itself, rather than have the film presume to provide a convenient answer.

If that’s the case, I consider The Century of the Self, the most satisfying of the three Curtis efforts of this decade. It is revelatory, exhaustive and cohesive in its four-hour argument for how psychological practices were co-opted by big businesses and governments as a way for them to target and exploit people’s desires. But more than just fulfill its stated thesis, the film is more successful than Curtis’ other films at engaging with the more philosophical questions that emerge from his social critique, in this case, nothing less than what the meaning of having a fulfilling life is about, and what sort of relationship we are to have with our impulses and desires. It doesn’t engage that question directly, but its persistent critique of the many attempts of 20th century schools of psychology and self-help, from Freud to Wilhelm Reich to Werner Erhard, attest to the frustrations and follies that arise in human beings’ repeated attempts to liberate or govern themselves, asserting value systems that invariably expose their own limitations. In other words, it’s like watching the BBC documentary version of a Luis Bunuel film.  Indeed, watching The Century of the Self, and Curtis’ other monumentally ambitious works of this decade, I’m convinced that he is the Luis Bunuel of our time.

Watch The Century of the Self on Google Video – Part 1 embedded below:

This comparison may fit not just in terms of their worldview, but in Curtis’  awesome compilation of archival and original footage to create a brilliant montage that seems to take up multiple perspectives towards the image – sometimes it supports the point being made, sometimes it offers a snarky counterpoint, and sometimes it just seems to offer a stupefying depiction of humanity beyond description. Like video footage taken from a corporate market research video that illustrates different types of consumers: the interview subject labeled “societally conscious” is a bookstore owner so deep into the stereotype that he that we can’t tell if he’s an actor or not. It’s those fluorishes of bizarreness that give Curtis an edge beyond the ostensible polemic of his projects, because they illustrate the persistent weirdness of humanity to defy its attempts to define itself.

So we have Jia’s Useless, an exceptional observational documentary with intriguing elements of fiction, and the films of Adam Curtis, a master social documentary essayist. These are but two of the many forms of documentary that have thrived in this past decade.  The following are those that I consider the best of the decade that I’ve seen:

Capturing the Friedmans
The Century of the Self
The Gleaners and I
Grizzly Man
My Architect
Los Angeles Plays Itself
S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine
Useless
When the Levees Broke: A Tragedy in Four Acts
Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie?

I’m sure there are many titles I have yet to catch up with – I still haven’t finished watching Wang Bing’s lauded magnum opus West of the Tracks. But please submit your favorite documentaries of this decade in the comments. I’ll be revisiting a select few over the course of the year, and fully expect at least one or two titles to make my list for best films of the decade.