Top Ten

Chris Dashiell
Chris Knipp
Don Larsson
Shari L. Rosenblum
Howard Schumann
Mark Sells

12 Favorites of 2005
by Howard Schumann

No Direction Home (Martin Scorsese)
Martin Scorsese's documentary No Direction Home brings it all back home and allows us to relive those days when the world seemed ready to embrace a new morning. No Direction Home follows the career of Bob Dylan from his childhood in Hibbing , Minnesota to his motorcycle accident in 1966, highlighting the most creative years in his life and offering previously unseen footage of Dylan as a young man. It brings to life the promise of that period, featuring concert performances by Dylan, Joan Baez, Pete Seeger Dave van Ronk, including scenes from the Newport Folk Festivals of 1963, '64, and '65, when Pete Seeger almost cut the chords on an electric Dylan. There is great music in the entire film and it is uplifting and wonderful but may be remembered only for its opening act, the act in which Dylan called us to greatness but denied his own.

Nobody Knows (Hirokazu Koreeda)
Hirokazu Kore'eda's Nobody Knows is a film of deep compassion about four young children abandoned by their mother in a small apartment in Tokyo. Based on a real incident in 1988, the film was written, directed, produced, and edited by Kore'eda whose earlier films were introspective meditations on life and death. Though his latest work is primarily a coming-of-age film about the transformation of a pre-adolescent boy, no film I've seen in recent memory has filled me with as much sadness for the failure of modern society to provide a coherent set of values for people. While there have been other films about the alienation of big city life, they tend to be cold and impersonal and convey an emotional deadness. Such is not the case here, where the children's natural vivacity and warmth make their closeness to each other more real and ultimately all the more heartbreaking.

Mysterious Skin (Gregg Araki)
In Gregg Araki's powerful drama, Mysterious Skin, eight-year old Brian (George Webster) accounts for missing time by confabulating it with stories of alien abductions and sets out on a path to uncover long suppressed memories. This is not a film about alien abductions, however, but about inappropriate sexual seduction of children and its deleterious effect on their development. While it is often graphic and difficult to watch, it is a sensitive film, held together by authentic and heartfelt performances by Joseph-Gordon Levitt as Neil and Brady Corbet as Brian, that allow us to connect with their open wounds. Mysterious Skin is an honest and compelling film in which there are no good guys and bad guys, just flawed people who act out their deep-seated needs in a harmful way.

The Holy Girl (Lucrecia Martel)
The Holy Girl is a film in which the combination of budding adolescent sexuality and Catholic Sunday School sermonizing leads to confusion and trouble. Similar in style to Alain Cavalier's masterful Thérése, another film about religious fervor, The Holy Girl is an extremely intimate series of minimalist vignettes in which the story unfolds in glimpses and whispered conversations, in "a slow reverie of quick moments." There is no approval or disapproval of behavior, only a snapshot of events that the viewer is left to interpret. The Holy Girl is elusive and somewhat disorienting, yet it remains an extraordinary achievement, full of intensity and crackling tension, true to the way people act when they are dealing with feelings bubbling beneath the surface.

Caché (Michael Haneke)
Austrian director Michael Haneke's spine-tingling Hitchcock-like thriller Caché is a metaphor for the denial of French responsibility for the treatment of Algerians in its colonial past and its current treatment of immigrants. It is not until several minutes into the film, however, that we realize we are watching videotape sent by unknown persons to the family of Georges Laurent (Daniel Auteuil). Haneke is masterful in showing the murk that is hidden beneath the outward calm of our comfortable middle-class lives, a recurring theme in many of his films. The mystery of who sent the tapes increases as Haneke builds an unrelenting atmosphere of imminent danger in a low-key manner without the use of foreboding music or special effects. Caché is a superbly crafted, entertaining, and challenging film that makes us painfully aware of the consequences of the lack of individual responsibility and creepy paranoia of modern life and of Western arrogance toward people considered inferior.

Turtles Can Fly (Bohman Ghobadi)
Kurdish director Bohman Ghobadi's Turtles Can Fly, is a view of war from the inside of a Kurdish refugee camp close to the Iraq-Turkish border just prior to and during the U.S. invasion. There is no overt political message, yet the hundreds of parentless children in the film, many with broken limbs from exploding landmines, tell a story of war that transcends politics. The children live in a world that has no electricity and no schools and where watching television with a satellite dish is a luxury, especially when many of the channels are forbidden. Ghobadi's film is both a celebration of the innocence of children and a warning about the dangers they face from dictators, fascists, and over-zealous democrats. Far better than any CNN or El Jazeera news account possibly could relate, the story of the war is written in their soulful faces.

The Merchant of Venice (Michael Radford)
William Shakespeare's controversial play is set in 16th century Venice, and director Michael Radford relies on setting, mood, and realism to tell its story, rejecting lavish period costumes or a modern setting with rock music to appeal to a wider audience. Pacino's performance as Shylock, a Jewish moneylender, and his bond to extract a pound of flesh from the wealthy merchant Antonio brings new vigor to the text, and his often over-the-top persona is replaced with a gentler, more understated demeanor that brings understanding to his cause. Radford slices the play's three-hour length to a manageable two hours and eight minutes and also provides some historical background. Although the play is primarily a drama of hatred and revenge, there are touches of broad comedy as well. Shylock is definitely a caricature, but he is an ambiguous figure and there are many indications that Shakespeare views his flaws as human failings, not Jewish ones.

Crash (Paul Haggis)
Urban society breeds fear, intolerance and lack of trust, especially of strangers of different ethnic backgrounds whom we see as potential threats rather than as people with problems similar to our own. In Crash, Paul Haggis has the vision to see the thread of common humanity that connects us beyond the socially conditioned fear. Crash is divided into several episodes and, as it unfolds, seemingly unrelated threads intersect to form a connection. Haggis has assembled an outstanding ensemble cast that includes Brendan Fraser, Sandra Bullock, Don Cheadle, Matt Dillon, and Ryan Phillippe, and all are first rate. Though the film is gritty and confrontational, the music by Kathleen "Bird" York alleviates some of the shock and nastiness and reminds us that there is a divine melody always playing in the background of our lives. In his first directorial effort, Haggis has given us a crash course in confronting stereotypes and looking beyond outward appearances to see the humanity that people are capable of.

The Syrian Bride (Eran Riklis)
A French/German/Israeli co-production, The Syrian Bride tells the story of a young Druze bride living in the Golan Heights in Israel who is to be wed to Syrian TV-star Tallel (Derar Sliman) from Damascus , a man she has never met. Since neither country recognizes the other diplomatically, once the bride crosses the border to Syria she will never be allowed to return to Israel, and her wedding day, usually one of great joy, may be one of her saddest. This is primarily a comedy, yet it is also a poignant drama that takes no sides but attempts to put the political turmoil in the region into a humanistic context. Whether you consider The Syrian Bride to be an allegory, black comedy, family drama, or political statement, the image of a girl sitting alone in a white wedding dress stuck between impenetrable barriers is one that will not soon go away.

The Constant Gardener (Fernando Mereilles)
Based on John Le Carré's novel by the same name, The Constant Gardener is a love story, told in flashbacks, about the growing understanding between two very different people, as well as a political thriller that exposes the collusion between a pharmaceutical company and the British government. Buoyed by outstanding performances from Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz, the film propels us into its intricate world of intrigue and corruption with a combustible energy that holds our attention from start to finish. Directed with style by Fernado Meirelles, the film succeeds not only in its main thrust of calling our attention to the exploitation of the world's poor, but in its depiction of a man's awakening to the realization that he is worthy of his wife's love.

C.R.A.Z.Y. (Jean Marc-Vallée)
Authentic and wildly inventive, Quebecois director Jean Marc-Vallée's C.R.A.Z.Y. covers a period of thirty years in the life of a suburban Catholic family and has a remarkable feeling for the era. Born on Christmas Day, 1960, Zachary Beaulieu is the second youngest of five sons. The adult Zac narrates the film and we see the world through his eyes as he learns to be true to himself the hard way. He tells us that the reason why he has always hated Christmas is because the holiday always overshadowed his birthday and because the presents he received were not those he really wanted. C.R.A.Z.Y. is more about being different in a conformist society and the struggle for self-awareness than just about being gay. As Vallée explains it, "The theme of the film is personal acceptance. It's about this struggle to express yourself and being honest in the moment."

The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill (Judy Irving)
North Beach poet/writer/street musician Mark Bittner lived rent-free for three years in a small cottage on San Francisco 's Telegraph Hill while trying to discover his life's direction, called Right Living in the Buddhist tradition. His quest ended when three green conures with red crowns showed up on his stairwell in North Beach. The next day twenty-six came, having either escaped from their owners or been intentionally released. All of this is documented in The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, directed by Judy Irving. She filmed the pony-tailed Bittner for almost a year, following him from his days trying to scrape up enough money for an espresso at Café Trieste in North Beach to the more comfortable present. The film is not just for or about the birds but about a gentle soul, his bond with nature, and a loving witness to the events. The beautiful birds opened up a new world for Bittner and Irving and may do so for you as well. They have now found the Right Living together and we are all the richer for it.

©2006 Howard Schumann

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