Films of the decade: "Memento"

Christopher Nolan's second feature scrambled my brain and expounded a bleak philosophy. But I forget what

By Mike D'Angelo

Published December 22, 2009 12:30PM (EST)

Still from "Memento"
Still from "Memento"

Reading the previous entries in this series has only reinforced my belief that naming your favorite film -- of the year, of the decade, of all freakin' recorded time -- is more of a personality test than an exercise in objective critical judgment. So rather than try to make a brief case for the unimpeachable awesomeness of "Memento," the movie that gave me more giddy pleasure than any other over the last 10 years, I think I'll just reveal the peculiar predilections and biases that made Christopher Nolan's stone-cold masterpiece (oops) custom-fitted for my particular sensibility.

For one thing, I've come to realize that there are few things I enjoy more as a filmgoer than the feeling of happy bewilderment. ("Happy" because despite having little or no idea what’s going on, I'm confident that I'm in expert hands -- i.e., that it's deliberate obfuscation, not incoherence.) My list of recent favorites that traffic in this sort of free-floating disorientation runs long: "Mulholland Drive," "The Headless Woman," "Primer," etc. But "Memento" is unique in that its unusual structure (which is not merely "backwards," incidentally -- there are two timelines that converge on a point somewhere in the narrative's middle) ensures that you, like anterograde-amnesiac protagonist Leonard Shelby, find yourself in a brand-new dense fog every four to five minutes. Even on my fifth viewing, by which time I'd pretty much committed the film to memory, each of these in medias res experiences still provided a satisfying jolt, a sense of cognitive scrambling.

Still, if it were only a matter of hitting that particular button, my passion would be fairly superficial, like a hot-and-dirty fling. What made me propose is the film's underlying philosophy, which happens to concur with one of my own most deeply held convictions. Like most great films, "Memento" tells a discomfiting truth -- namely, that we have little or no idea why we do most of the things we do, and that our conscious motivations are little more than convenient lies that we've told ourselves and then carefully forgotten. That Christopher Nolan, in only his second feature, managed to turn such a bleak, paralyzing idea into a hugely entertaining mind fuck still seems miraculous to me. Can I even be sure that I've correctly identified my reasons for loving this picture? The beauty and the terror of it is: not really.

Film Salon has invited a group of special guests to write about their favorite film(s) of the 2000s. To read the entire series, go here.

Mike D'Angelo

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Best Of The Decade Christopher Nolan Film Salon Films Of The Decade Movies