In This World
intimate and rigorously observant film shows us the long, arduous journey
of two young Afghans across international borders, towards the promise
of a better life in London. The documentary-type subject is enriched by
a fiction-oriented style, with the two actors playing themselves and improvising
their lines. Winterbottom's hand-held camera can go almost anywhere without
being noticed, so we see the streets and the crowds as they really are,
while the narrative structure remains open to the influence of chance
events and circumstances. What emerges is a compassionate portrait of
humanity in extremis, without arguments or generalizations blocking the
way. The young men's journey eventually comes to an unforgettable crisis
that is guaranteed to shatter the viewer's complacency. In an age where
media imagery has become increasingly divorced from the reality of everyday
life, this film bridges the gap between audience and subject, letting
us see and feel the life of the refugee as our life, and our concern.
More powerfully, more bravely than in any other film of the year, In
This World confronts us with the essential human condition.
story of an unnamed man who travels to a remote Mexican canyon in order
to kill himself, only to be slowly transformed by the overwhelming power
of nature, and the simple life of an old Indian woman, is rendered by
first-time director Reygadas with a recklessly profligate visual style
that takes the mind beyond words. Shot in 16-millimeter widescreen, the
film features down-in-the-dirt subjective shots switching to swirling
eye-in-the-sky perspectives, overexposed shots lending a glaring intensity
to the world's contours, and at the end, one of the most spectacular extended
tracking shots ever conceived. This is a picture of intense physicality
- totally focused on our sense of embodiment - while vividly contrasting
the transcendent awareness born in the open spaces with the heedless rejection
of the sacred by men living in squalid little towns. This is mythmaking
on a grand scale - the kind of daring, ambitious work that restores one's
faith in movies.
(Gus Van Sant).
Real life is not like a story, with a beginning and end, but a continually
flowing "now" moment. Van Sant wants us to see this moment, from the inside
of various high school students' heads, on a not-so-normal day at a school
that is a lot like Columbine, and the result is that we don't have a story
at all, but a trancelike evocation of life on the cusp of death. The most
mundane words and actions seem to have bottomless depths when shown from
the vantage point of mortality. The ever moving, over-the-shoulder camera
work, and the picture's mournful atmosphere, gets under your skin with
an assurance both gentle and scary. Elephant is not the kind of
film you think it will be, or the kind of film you could have expected,
and this profound reversal of our accustomed way of seeing things is part
of its intriguing and disturbing power.
ingeniously constructed tragic puzzle about that most potent subject of
horror - the family. Centering on a former mental patient (Ralph Fiennes)
who returns to his old neighborhood, only to re-witness as a ghostly spectator
the traumatic events of his childhood, the picture is both haunting and
abstract, turning the screen into a stage for the main character's anguished
mental processes. Fiennes' unheralded performance was the best of the
year - almost unbearably physical, with a single-minded, maniacal interior
focus. Miranda Richardson and Gabriel Byrne are outstanding as the parents.
Those accustomed to sensationalism as the standard approach to such material
will be disappointed - Cronenberg's coolly distanced style is designed
not for shock value, but to produce understanding.
Ark (Alexander Sokurov).
is different from any other director in seeking to create films that communicate
on a wholly subliminal level. This has never been more true than in this
tour de force depiction of classical Russian history as a guided sleepwalk
through the Hermitage Museum. The picture consists of one 96-minute take
- the longest continuous shot in film history - but this is not a mere
stunt. The lack of cuts is part and parcel of the film's meaning and raison
d'etre: the flow of historical time as unbroken dream. The insistently
contrary voice of a haughty European aristocrat buzzes at the back of
our consciousness like a cranky superego trying to make sense out of this
faux European pageant. Sokurov's view of Russia is both passionate and
critical. In a larger sense, his film-as-dream depicts both the transitory
nature of events and the eternal nature of the human as such.
and Tides (Thomas Riedelsheimer).
for its own sake is not frivolous, contrary to what we may have been taught.
The year's most visually gorgeous film is, appropriately, about an artist:
outdoor sculptor Andy Goldsworthy, whose works are fashioned wholly from
natural materials - stones, leaves, dirt, icicles, etc. - and often are
transitory in nature, surviving only in photographs. Films about artists
usually flail about, trying to find something for us to hang on to - psychology,
personal anecdote, talking head critics - but Riedelsheimer just lets
the articulate Goldsworthy talk about his methods and ideas, while showing
us the meticulous creation of the works themselves. It's a film of great
patience and sensitivity, and it succeeds in transporting the viewer into
a new way of seeing the world.
Hearts (Susanne Bier).
Dogme 95 film movement seems to have had its day, and is now routinely
dismissed by critics, but this little-seen gem demonstrates how the movement's
austere aesthetic can succeed in creating a fine, stirring film. The story
centers on a moment when bliss turns into tragedy - a man is hit by a
car and paralyzed the day after getting engaged. In the hospital, he pushes
his fiancee away, who eventually ends up in the arms of one of the hospital's
doctors, who happens to be the husband of the woman driving the fatal
car. These melodramatic elements are transformed by Bier's observant,
naturalistic style into a poignant and believable drama of relationships,
where we just keep going deeper and deeper into the characters' hearts,
seeing in the end only the dreams, feelings and frailties, rather than
stereotypes or judgments, of these lonely sufferers.
8. To Be and To Have (Nicolas Philibert).
best teachers have a life-changing effect on young people, but it's not
easy to translate their subtle influence into good cinema. This documentary
emulates the gentleness and patience of its subject: George Lopez, who
teaches grades K-6 at a single-room schoolhouse in a tiny country village
in southeastern France. We watch about a dozen kids go through a school
year with Lopez, and the fact that this is such a small school allows
us to see the power of the one-on-one relationship that this remarkable
man has with his students. We see him mediating disputes honestly, allowing
kids to express how they feel and to come to their own conclusions without
being forced. The film is also a kind of meditation on childhood. In order
to appreciate this world, one needs to slow down, get quiet, and listen
for the little things. Philibert has just the right approach - the patient
viewer is rewarded with a feeling of being grounded in the things that
Sixteen (Ken Loach).
has devoted his career to portraying the lives of working class people,
often youth trapped in the spiral of generational poverty. Here we meet
Liam (an excellent performance by newcomer Martin Compston), a teenager
in a west Scotland slum, whose mother is in jail, having taken the rap
for her drug-dealing boyfriend. Liam steals heroin from the boyfriend,
sets up shop on his own, and becomes inexorably drawn into a world of
organized crime that is bigger than he can handle. Loach is true to the
way teens in a lower-class environment would talk and behave, but rather
than give in to the false appearance of "cool," the film shows the real
effect such a harsh world has on the feelings of a warm, intelligent spirit.
We see Liam's strengths, admire his remarkable endurance, even though
we know he's going down the wrong road. Sweet Sixteen shows the
experience of young people on the margins as dramatic, powerful, and worthy
of respect, unlike the usual kind of teen movie that the title ironically
in the Sun (Fernando León de Aranoa).
a coastal town in northern Spain, laid-off dock workers struggle with
the anger and depression of being unemployed. The film's matter-of-fact,
anecdotal style is a perfect match for the characters' experience of rootlessness.
These men aren't sure who they are any more, and their situation brings
up petty animosity and jealousy, as well as playfulness and humor. Anchoring
the film is Javier Bardem, who plays the most charismatic and irresponsible
of the group - a gruff, wisecracking scoundrel whose stubborn refusal
to give in is alternately admirable and pathetic. The performance has
richness, unpredictability, darkness, wit, and a kind of inchoate nobility.
You start out thinking he's a jerk, and by the end you love him, even
though he's still a jerk.
And now, the B-sides:
Son (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne).
Dardenne brothers take their minimalist aesthetic farther than ever before,
in this enigmatic parable about a carpentry teacher who takes a juvenile
delinquent under his wing. The film refuses to indulge in dramatic cues,
which allows it to attain a rare, bracing immediacy.
the Friedmans (Andrew Jarecki).
At the core of this fascinating true-life study are home movies documenting
the collapse of a family under the pressures of a witch hunt, and the
internal forces that were always there, but unacknowledged. Never a comfortable
experience, the picture confronts us with the scapegoating of a pedophile,
and in so doing becomes a test of the limits of one's conscience and compassion.
Heart (Tom Hunsinger and Neil Hunter).
The funeral of a gay man on the Isle of Wight branches out into multiple
connected stories of love and loss. We are drawn into making judgments
about the characters, only to be pulled up short when we later see things
from their point of view. With winning performances by Douglas Henshall
and Bill Nighy, this insightful picture is both soft-hearted and clear-eyed.
Africa (Abbas Kiarostami).
lively and personal portrait of Uganda, its AIDS orphans, and the filmmaking
project itself, by one of cinema's greatest artists. The theme is endurance
- we do not see a defeated people, but a people committed to surmounting
its problems, and the film's gentle approach serves to humanize both subject
to Her (Pedro Almodóvar).
Women in comas, and the men who love them. There's more here about shifting
gender roles, male anxiety, and psycho-sexual delusion than you can find
in a whole semester of cultural film studies, but without any of the boring
parts. The film seems to be the culmination of Almodovar's quest to merge
his comic and tragic sensibilities into one.
16. Lost in Translation (Sofia Coppola).
Marketed as a Bill Murray comedy, this is actually a lovely little tone
poem about two misfits making a momentary, heartfelt connection in a foreign
country. The picture is almost avant garde in its gentle disregard for
plot in favor of atmosphere and subtle communication between the two leads.
Murray's performance is wistful and witty, and Scarlett Johansson is quite
17. Spellbound (Jeffrey Blitz).
idea is as simple as can be: we follow eight kids on their journey towards
the National Spelling Bee. But the film's unironic and wholly partisan
identification with the young people makes the film very special. Once
again, a little respect goes a long way.
on the Doorstep (Jiang Wen).
In occupied China during World War II, a hog-tied Japanese officer and
his translator are mysteriously left in the hands of a hapless villager.
Do we need another film about the horror and waste of war? Well, this
picture uses tense, staccato editing, outrageous farce, and an unsparing
vision of human failings to portray the absolute stupidity of war.
Not for the faint-hearted.
Victor Vargas (Peter Sollett).
An honest to goodness coming of age story set on the Lower East Side,
featuring a boy who tries his best to be macho, but finding out, through
his wooing of a spirited girl, that maturity means being true to your
self. A good slice-of-life debut effort, with fine, understated performances.
20. All or Nothing (Mike Leigh).
presents another variation on the sublime miserablism that is his trademark:
the story of three unhappy families in a London housing complex gradually
focuses on a harried working mother (Lesley Manville) whose loving care
of her husband and children masks unacknowledged resentment. The social
observation is precisely nuanced. The catharsis is earned.