Cinescene's
Top Ten

Chris Dashiell
Alexander Ellerman
Chris Knipp
Shari L. Rosenblum
Howard Schumann

Top Ten: My Take
by Shari L. Rosenblum

Though it was a year of cinematographic splendor both subtle and extreme, the films that most impressed me in 2006 were for the most part quieter and more subdued than those I’ve listed as my favorites in previous years. They did not so much shout at me as seep into my consciousness, the thematic and dialogic imperfections that troubled me on first viewing making way for visions that exceeded my expectations. Even those films that at first struck me as superficial have come to resonate for me from unexpected depths.

1. Fateless – Adapted (by cinematographer-turned-director Lajos Koltai) in haunting and indelible images from a semi-autobiographical novel by a man who as a child survived the ostensible fate of his people in the camps (Nobel Laureate Imre Kertész), Fateless lets us in on the story of a 14-year-old boy who lived through Auschwitz, Buchenwald and Zeitz. Sentimentality and the casual truisms of comfortable histories be damned, Fateless refuses the rhetorical hellishness and meaningless metaphors made palliative by repetition (“I can’t imagine hell,” the boy says matter of factly when all is ostensibly done, “but the camps were real”). Fateless does not try to explain the inexplicable, highlight the atrocities or elucidate the victories; it is first and foremost an existential voyage, reclaiming the personal from the political, the individual experience from the moral teachings. Told in linear vignettes at once painterly and balletic, related without forced emphases or stilted iconographic moments, it unfolds in the cinematically altered starkness of surreality, stunningly lit, composed, and scored. Its silences pierce through the axiomatic inexpressibility of horror, its earthy tones and streaks of graded grays rising from the screen like a voiceless cry.

2. Marie Antoinette – It is mood that Sofia Coppola captures best: the way a choreographed sashay turns into a scurry, or the shedding of corset wear makes liberation sensual, or a final bow over a balcony becomes a gracious act of majesty. More brazen, but no less discriminating than her previous works, her Marie Antoinette deceives us with its surfaces—a lightness of touch and spectacular scenery—but depths of perception percolate rhythmically beneath its surface, the heartbeat of a historical moment that was in great measure all about the show. A moment when a crossing from one throne to another meant the promised princess’s being stripped bare at the border all the way down to her pug and being recast in appropriate attire, and where everything from her daily toilette to the delivery of her children was on display. A moment where, ironically perhaps, the placing of the crown on the young girl’s head effectively deprived her of the right to her body, so that the two were severed figuratively long before the guillotine at Place de la Concorde was even built.

3. The Queen -- A treatment of the Palace’s much criticized response to the death of Princess Diana in the wake of newfound emotionality among the British people and a popular populist Prime Minister, The Queen is written with intelligence and directed with palpable respect for its players and its audiences. More impressive still, Helen Mirren, fearlessly embodying a subject of which she is subject, makes the reigning Queen of England both impressively regal and remarkably human with every flick of her hand and every flash of her eyes.

4. Pan’s Labyrinth – Born of historical angers unresolved, Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth plays like a grown up version of the child’s fairytale, replete with frightening allusions to murder, rape and dominance, the risks of self-defense and the cost of lost innocence. The inventiveness of the design astounds, the vision so complete--the evil of his Fascist monsters so intricately graphic, the fantasy escape of his young heroine so richly drawn--that it engulfs the viewer in the imagined reality of its fiction, making it hard to step back, to step outside the truth of the telling. As the terror grows more tangible, as the film’s demons encroach on its fantasies, even the viewer safe in the theater trembles at the options.

5. The Devil Wears Prada -- Improving multifold on the whininess and self-satisfaction of its source material, the barely disguised portrait of Anna Wintour and the reinvention of a girl transformed by working in the high pressure, high demand, what-kind-of-dream-is-this? job in New York becomes a fascinating tale of the power of appearances. Too readily dismissed for what might overliterally pass as skin-deepness, the film tackles from all ends--some obviously, some artfully, and some just by the nature of its casting--the issues of presentation and power, impression and influence, and the delusion of those who think themselves free of the game. Anne Hathaway’s rebirth in the Vogue-alike closet gives her greater credibility even to the audience ready to scoff, and Meryl Streep, in a brilliant performance, is utterly divine, transformed into a magnificent powerhouse of sleekness just by the costume design, with a single make-upless scene that lends a certain profundity to the whole.

6. Water -- Widows’ white flashes against the welcoming blue of the surrounding water and the forbiddingly deeper blue of the night sky, nearly each scene an evocation of death in life—with glimmering hints of the vice versa. The last entry in Deepa Mehta’s elemental trilogy, Water missteps when selling out its feminist fury for the Ghandian shill, but is exquisite when focused on the deliberate desexualization, denaturation and exploitation of the women left behind in Hindu tradition, and the aching vitality that never ceases to struggle from within.

7. L’Enfant -- Austerely filmed in unprettied close-ups and bleakly modern landscapes, L’Enfant bristles on the screen with the moral ambivalence and unexpected faith with which the Dardennes have made their name. At once social commentary and religious allegory, the film is more considered than complex. A studied and insistent realism forces its way through the lens, the handheld camera pulling in on the slightest of gestures, as a young man of no particular worth or likeability betrays his child, other children, his girlfriend and himself, forgiveness a belated quest, and redemption a questionable proposition.

8. Three Times –Three short films, three different eras, three ways that love can go, Three Times becomes a sumptuous meditation on the idea of love and time, more poetic than practical, more visceral than insightful. The same two lovers, by varying names, engage in familiar pas de deux, however foreign the contexts, and the viewer, immersed in the colors and composition of the piece, the sounds of its music and the ironies and missed chances of its lovers’ fates, can do little but give in to it.

9. 49 Up -- A bird’s eye view of growing up and growing older in intricate detail, with a distance we could never achieve in examination of our own or the lives of our families. Begun with the first installment 42 years ago as a political inquiry—a living document critique of the class system in England—this documentary series has far exceeded its original reach, having come now to serve not only as record of the ways in which we all change with age—physically and emotionally, and the ways in which the world has changed specifically around us, but also of the ways in which the documenting itself imposes itself on the record, often directing its subjects actively or otherwise in their choices. For the viewer who has followed along, the participants seem bizarrely familiar with each new segment, even if they’ve been forgotten in the intervening years, and there is a certain comfort in seeing both how closely they have grown into their predictions for themselves, and by how much they’ve surpassed them.

10. Little Miss Sunshine -- A slight film about family that does not take itself too seriously, Little Miss Sunshine manages to confront with easy humor the mini-tragedies, heartfelt failures and moments of self-loathing that threaten to consume us all at some point or another. Simultaneously domestic satire and apologia for family values, it manages to reassure and critique in a single bound, eschewing with increasing grace the ample opportunities it has for mean-spiritedness and cheap shots. Steeped in the tradition of comedic exaggeration, it remains grounded in the common experience: sly, subversive and utterly affirming.

©2007 Shari L. Rosenblum
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