Best of the 2000’s: Epilogue

The Best of the Rest: Honorable Mentions for the 2000’s

For every beginning, there must be an end. Sadly, our joint venture has come to its waning days, but the experience has been invigorating and therapeutic. So we have a decade nearly in the books, ten personal favorites revealed, and plenty of great Cinema to spare.

As previously stated in the Prologue, a rash of other masterful films deserve mention as best of the 2000’s, and I’d like to consider each in short bursts. I’ve ranked them 11-20 but in truth, they are interchangeable on any given day. To be followed by my Top 10 performances of the decade. Continue reading

The Headless Woman (Martel, 2008)


In her short career as a feature filmmaker, Lucrecia Martel has deepened the complex well of Art Cinema, developing an enigmatic collusion between close visual framing and layered ambient sound design, all while mining for universal contradictions and local tragedies within Argentina’s widening class divide. With The Headless Woman, her latest and most harrowing film, Martel finally transcends the minor failures of La Cienaga and The Holy Girl (vague characterizations, scattered plot-lines) and focuses her gaze, constructing a singular vision of trauma, guilt, and disavowal, a perfect realization of her previous obsessions.

The Headless Woman begins quietly enough, in the barren outskirts of an Argentinean town where three boys chase each other through the thick brush. Two are brothers, and one jumps down into a canal, asking his sibling to follow. The younger boy jumps in, only to find he’s been tricked. The older, stronger brother has already catapulted himself from the space. Martel holds the camera on the younger boy attempting to get out, running up the slab of concrete, failing to rise to safe ground. Then darkness, as Martel moves on leaving the boy’s fate ambiguous but indelible.

This opening is crucial for many reasons. The boys represent the native Indian lower classes often found in Martel’s films, emblems of repression that are pushed to the fringes by people of wealth and status. Also the concrete canal evokes a clear visualization of the unending quagmire between classes in Argentina. The film then cuts to Veronica (Maria Onetta), Martel’s focus on the Argentine elite. While driving home on these same dusty country roads, Veronica hits something while answering her cell phone. The camera never leaves the interior of the car as Veronica’s face turns from shock to panic. Martel gives a short glimpse of a body from afar, but the audience is never given clear evidence of what Veronica has struck. Is it an animal, or the boy previously trapped in the canal?

The uncertainty haunts Veronica’s upper class existence for the entire rest of the film. But in The Headless Woman, this plot device does not function as it would in Hollywood filmmaking. There will be no revenge, no psycho-killer seeking retribution. The film concerns itself with Veronica’s collage of emotions after she panics and drives away from the scene. Martel sends Veronica back to her world of privilege and wealth a tainted woman, and the development of both her layered reaction and those of the men around her make the film a masterful exploration of character and context. Accountability disappears as corners are cut, evidence is destroyed, and the entire fair gets brushed under the rug without protest.

Martel makes Veronica the center of every scene, stalking her with the camera enacting a visual parallel for her psychological state. Natural sounds fade in and out, scenes overlap onto each other, and life continues on without further incident. No police investigation, just interior conflict. Is Veronica truly shaken by the possibility of killing a child, or is she merely scared of getting caught? Maria Onetta’s eyes explore Veronica’s entire character arc, but never answer this disturbing question, making this mostly silent performance one of the year’s best. The Headless Woman ends in one stunning scene of guilt morphing into indifference, collecting the social artifacts of Martel’s oeuvre in a casual social setting, unmasking the skeletons of everyday life with a final moment of numbing silence.

The Holy Girl (Martel, 2004)


If La Cienaga abstracts Lucrecia Martel’s obsession with sound and space by exploring menacing, dynamic open areas, her second film The Holy Girl compartmentalizes and purifies these same aesthetics within a confined, suffocating locale – a bare-bones Argentinean hotel. Martel shows there’s no escaping the inevitable bursts of energy when bodies in motion collide, when a gaze turns into so much more than a connection, but a deception of intent. Religion and natural selection battle through every room, between young and old, as characters either settle for stasis or attempt to fill voids created by past failures.

Amalia (Maria Alche), the young teen at the heart of Martel’s guise, takes her fascination with an older doctor as a god-given evocation, albeit one initiated by an earlier moment of perversion. Her confusion, excitement, and disappointment create an unsettling conflict between weakness and morality, one that ties in brilliantly with Martel’s continuous use of the close-up. These shots display faces barely obscured, favoring ears, lips, hair, clear incarnations of sensory build-up, never allowing an easy recognition of place.

Martel’s style is both distancing and fascinating, connecting characters through meticulous framing while separating their ability to communicate with jarring uses of off-screen sound. It seems all of Martel’s films, especially The Holy Girl, demand multiple viewings to break down the director’s layered environments and ambiguous characters. But on first glance, it feels like a tragedy unfolding in the sparest of decisive moments, ones most directors ignore far too often.

La Cienaga (Martel, 2001)


Through the relentless use of constricting ambient sounds, Lucrecia Martel creates a smothering atmosphere in the opening sequence of La Cienaga (The Swamp), beginning a long and winding road toward a particularly devastating sudden death. But Martel’s emphasis obviously lies in the process of suffocation, symbolized by a dead cow stuck in an ocean of mud, a stagnant pool cloudy with dirt and grime, and the countless interior shots of people lounging, sweating, and sleeping away time. La Cienaga charts the long summer days of one wealthy Argentine family anchored in quicksand by an alcoholic matriarch and an almost inconsequential male presence. Martel offsets this brood with a working class parallel, a family who comes from the city to spend time at their friend’s countryside villa, one flanked by endless foliage-topped mountains and swamps. La Cienaga visualizes some damning social critiques, the centerpiece being an obvious tension between the lighter skinned upper class the the darker toned “Indians” on the fringes of every scene. These conflicts often break out suddenly, leaving the viewer to piece together the altercations during the submerged moments of solace after the fact. Even though her style seems at first heavy-handed, Martel is an obvious talent, someone eagerly committed to challenging the realms of cinematic sound and space and their direct relationship to character.