1. City of God
If you asked movie lovers and film critics to name the best movie of the ’70s, more than a few of them would name “The Godfather.” If you asked them the same question about the ’90s, “Goodfellas” would be at or near the top of the list, and not far behind it would be “Pulp Fiction.” For some reason, gangsters make surprisingly good cinema. So when it came time to make the list for the ’00s, guess what is at the top of this movie lovers’ list?
Yep, it’s a gangster movie. “City of God” is “Goodfellas” set in the slums of Brazil; it’s “Pulp Fiction” starring hoods and criminals a decade or two younger than the ones in “The Godfather.” It’s a thrillling, colorful, stylishly directed, electrifying story about kids — really, they’re just kids — robbing, murdering, selling drugs, and sometimes trying to figure out if there’s any way out of the endless cycle of violence and murder.
“City of God” isn’t set in New York, Chicago, or even Boston; it’s set in the worst slum of Rio de Janeiro, from which the film takes its title. The film follows two kids as they almost become adults. One is Lil’ Ze, a born killer who, by the age of 20, is the most feared gangster in the city of God. The other, the narrator of the film is Rocket, a much more innocent kid who dreams of being a photographer, and hopes those dreams can get him out of the city of God.
Rocket is a bit like William Miller, the protagonist of “Almost Famous.” Both are likable guys who somehow manage to and be part of a scene and befriend larger-than-life characters and gain their trust and confidence without ever actually getting their hands dirty or committing to anything. Rocket always knows what’s going on, but is never involved. I don’t know if it’s possible in real life to be this clean and this close to the dirt, but it works well in movies, because really, that’s what the camera is; an innocuous watcher, often seeing things the characters wouldn’t let anyone else see, hearing things spoken only in secret.
Lil’ Ze, on the other hand, is a psychopath. Much of “City of God” is about the drug trade, and in a lot of ways, it’s like my favorite TV show of the ’00s, “The Wire.” We learn a lot about the drug trade in Rio, how it gets bought, distributed, and sold, who’s involved and how. We meet plenty of drug dealers and slum lords. But Lil’ Ze is something else. Early on, he messes up a robbery with older hoods because he’s more interested in shooting people than in taking their money. He has to go into hiding and emerges later older, smarter, but no less bloodthirsty. He kills a lot of people and does a number of incredibly violent things, and each step he becomes more powerful, but it always seems like for him, the killing’s the thing, and the power grab is just a rationalization.
Perhaps the only person Lil’ Ze wouldn’t just as soon kill as look at is Benny, a charismatic kid with a blond-tipped fro and giant square glasses. Benny’s a hood because he needs money for clothes; he oozes charisma and style, and everyone likes him. He steals Rocket’s girlfriend (the gorgeous Alice Braga) right out from under his nose, and Rocket just smiles about it, because how can you not like Benny?
Of course, something terrible and tragic happens to him before the film’s through, because you can’t be a guy like Benny in a film like this and survive. If this were a Scorsese film, I’d say it’s a morality play about living by the sword; to “City of God’s” credit, this isn’t a Scorsese film, but it often feels like one.
Fact is, it’s co-directed by two relative unknowns: Fernando Meirelles and Katia Lund. Meirelles made the excellent and underrated “The Constant Gardener” after this, so he may be an underrated director. But primarily these two have worked on music videos, commercials and documentaries. They seem like the extreme dark horse in the race to turn in the best film of the decade, but consider this: in the previous decade, Quentin Tarantino turned cinema on its head by capturing the popular imagination with films that borrowed many stylistic elements from commercials, music videos and documentaries. Occasionally, “City of God” feels like a great lost Tarantino film; not in attitude, but in style, with its nonlinear storytelling, chapter breaks, occasional voiceover, and excessive use of slow motion. Maybe, in the end, it’s utterly appropriate that the best film of the decade was directed by people more accustomed to making commercials and music videos. Times have changed, and so have the ways we watch movies. Stories about gangster still make great cinema, and Meireles/Lund have captured the modern way to tell those stories in a compelling, exciting, and unforgettable way. And that’s why “City of God” is my favorite movie of the decade.