#20- Mulholland Drive- David Lynch (2001)
#34- Donnie Darko- Richard Kelly (2001)
To the joy of every snobby college kid and the chagrin of every judgmental mother-in-law, the early part of the decade introduced the laptop movie, of which Donnie Darko and Mulholland Drive are textbook examples. These are films for which companion volumes--be they erudite Film Comment reviews, cryptic interviews with the director, or crackpot theories on message boards--are almost necessary for the illusion of understanding. I say illusion of understanding because Richard Kelly and David Lynch, really two sides of the same directorial coin, present such dense visions that they aren't meant to be digested easily.
Some of the most acclaimed literature of all time is the type that defies description and summary. Reading The Wasteland or Ulysses isn't something you can do until you're ready, and many critics end up devoting their lives to decoding them. Likewise, modern art that can be explained away quickly is pretty much bad modern art in the eyes of experts. Yet with film, we still expect to kick back on a Friday night and be completely fulfilled in two hours. What's special about Lynch and Kelly's visions is that they laugh in the face of that notion. They are great in the same way those other intricate works are: each viewer, once he surrenders to the spirit of the films, brings his own perspective to them. Depending on your interpretation, no two people have the same experience. And if the way I'm explaining it sounds sketchy, just imagine how difficult it is to pull the actual thing off.
Both films are enjoyable on a scene-to-scene level, which is why we care about things like whether or not Donnie really dies. At times, it's easy to concede that this is pretentious trash. Or you can say that it's not worth understanding the film if you have to read footnotes on a poorly-designed website Richard Kelly released in anticipation of the film eight years ago. But we keep watching, enthralled. We wouldn't be enticed to go to the trouble of unlocking the films' secrets if they weren't worth it. That's the trick that separates them from hermetic straight-to-DVD wannabes. That and really hot lesbian sex scenes.
Another requirement for these types of movies? Creepiness. Lots of creepiness.
The films' releases coincided with the best ways to consume them, or at least the best crutches we need for them. The joint rise of the wisdom of crowds of the Internet and the instant gratification of DVD reached a critical mass in 2001. Without these two coincidental aids, I doubt these movies would have had the resonance they did. So, in a running theme of these best of lists, they are complete products of their time.
Looking back on it, it's a wonder more films like Mulholland Drive and Donnie Darko don't exist. I know it's tough to bankroll something as impenetrable as a fable of conspiracy, dreams, memory, and the lost dreams of L.A., but movies with shelf-lives as long as these have to eventually become as profitable as they are memorable. I've got something here: there was enough financial potential for the director's cut of Donnie Darko to be released theatrically only three years later. On the other hand, I guess Kelly's follow-up Southland Tales is the litmus test for laptop movies' potential, and it didn't go so well.
Honestly, I can't lie that there are indelible pieces of myself associated with these films. If you ask a guy what his favorite movie is when he's seventy, it's almost always something he saw for the first time when he was seventeen. I can't deny that part of why I like Mulholland Drive is the sick thrill I got from watching its steaminess on the computer in my strict high school's newspaper office. Part of why I love Donnie Darko is the way I watched out of the corner of my eye the bop of the pink socks of that girl I like-liked who didn't like me in the same way. And I'm sorry if that sounds sketchy, but no two people have the same experience with these films. Luckily, it's something worth trying to understand.