Good films for
a bad year

by Chris Dashiell

I don't hesitate for a moment to call this a bad year. When a regime as openly evil as Bush-Cheney manages to get itself elected, despite being thorougly exposed as lying, thieving, fear-based, 9/11 commission stonewalling, hate-mongering, earth-raping, Constitution-trampling, torture- loving gangsters -- well, let's just say that the body politic has more than a few hemorrhoids. When someone told me that Time magazine had named Bush "Person of the Year," it made sense. It was a bad year.

But it was a good year for movies. Although there was no out-and-out masterpiece that knocked me over, there were enough excellent films to make putting together a top 10 a difficult challenge. What mattered to me most was honesty and spiritual clarity -- not false hope or cheeriness, not the dead end of escapism. If there was happiness on screen (and there was) it needed to be real, and meaningful for the times. And if there was darkness, so be it, but no nihilism (Kill Bill) or fanaticism (Passion of the Mel), please. I still believe in human beings, and I sure hope we overcome.

For my list, I stuck to my old ground rules: only films that appeared on a big screen in my city during the past year, and were not more than three years old, were eligible. (And as always, a few titles from the previous year show up here, because of the time it took to reach a screen in the naked pueblo.) But these rules demonstrated, this year more than ever, how a list like this can only be a "favorites" and not a "best of." Even with a good art theater in my burg, there were dozens of important films, mostly foreign, that never made it out here and probably never will. I'm stuck reading about them in the film mags, grinding my teeth. And as distribution continues to dwindle, the multiplexes fill to their brims with mindless dreck. I'm sorely tempted to allow DVDs onto my ground rules in the future.

Here's to a new year. Fight on.

1. Distant (Nuri Bilge Ceylan).

The dry wit and melancholy poetry of the Turkish director Ceylan's third film illuminates the modern predicament of isolation with a cold and steady light. A young man (Mehmet Emin Toprak) travels from his country village to Istanbul to stay with his worldly cousin (Muzaffer Ozdemir) until he can find a job. But he barely makes the effort to look -- in fact, he loses himself, wandering in the city's spiritual wilderness, while the cousin, a recently divorced photographer who has retreated into a lonely inner world, becomes more and more resentful and impatient with his lodger.

The gulf between the two cousins echoes in the artificial spaces they inhabit and in the disturbing void of the city's anonymous crowds. The film's title sums up the theme -- potent and deceptively simple -- while at the same time describing the director's method. Ceylan uses precise editing and camera placement, repetition, and an instinct for "dead" moments in time to reproduce a lack of connection so pervasive that the characters simply take it for granted. There is no musical score to tell us how to feel, only the sounds of bells, distant shouts, and barking dogs. The television is often playing in the apartment, and its deadening presence is one of the film's dark jokes. The little details provide evidence of loss: a mouse evading capture, the disappearance of a watch.

This was the year's most beautifully realized film: the quietest, the saddest, and the one that most typified how I felt about 2004, with its grief, missed opportunities, inchoate desires and hopes. The ending -- poignant, humane, perfectly understated -- replays itself again and again in my heart as I look to the future.

2. Vera Drake (Mike Leigh).

The story of a kind, cheerful, middle-aged woman who cleans houses for a living, takes care of family and friends in postwar London, and helps poor women with unwanted pregnancies by providing home remedy style saline abortions, free of charge. Rarely are the lives of ordinary, hard-working people observed with such unaffected warmth, or in such vivid and natural detail. When the law gets wind of Vera's crimes, the film becomes a heartrending portrait of undeserved suffering.

Leigh's improvisatory methods work wonders here. In a few expertly acted scenes, we get to know each member of Vera's loving, somewhat eccentric family with surprising intimacy. The movie frankly portrays the sexual politics around out-of-wedlock pregnancy, with the story of one rich girl who manages to get an abortion with relative ease contrasting with the poor women who have to resort secretly to Vera's help. But there is no sense of being preached at, no narrating voice telling us how to think -- Leigh just presents the tale with utter clarity.

Imelda Staunton is magnificent in the title role, playing someone who finds fulfillment in helping others with an officiously good-natured energy and naivete. Her transformation through the fire of shame and anguish is absolutely stunning. Leigh knows that the most effective social commentary is the kind that doesn't comment at all, but merely shows the effects of political conditions on the daily lives of real people. The story takes place in an earlier time, when powerlessness was assumed to be the lot of women. We are free to draw conclusions about current efforts to move us back in time.

3. Crimson Gold (Jafar Panahi).

The divide between social classes, if it is to be anything more than an abstract idea or a call to arms, must be felt as a lived condition. In a spare, formal style of unrelenting honesty, Panahi conveys that experience, without a trace of fanfare or self-consciousness. The film opens with a tragically bungled jewelry store robbery. We then follow, in flashback, the struggles of an inarticulate hulk of a man, (Hossain Emadeddin) a veteran who ekes out a living by delivering pizzas on his motorcycle.

The director uses real time to depict the humdrum life of his hero -- emptiness and boredom are weapons in his arsenal, and his mentor Abbas Kiarostami's, who wrote the film, a fact that continues to offend those viewers seeking escape or entertainment. But the film wants us to feel what it's really like to be this person, and all that implies. In this, Crimson Gold succeeds with complete assurance and economy.

Emadeddin's performance is so steady, so mutely convincing, that it's alternately amusing and unnerving. While the film's title combines the colors of blood and money, the method is anything but didactic. Without the adornment of psychological explanations, or the habit, so ingrained in Western cinema, of creating "identification," the picture nails, with penetrating accuracy, the disturbing sensation of standing outside the social order, looking in.

4. Maria Full of Grace (Joshua Marston).

Marston's debut feature takes a subject -- drug smuggling -- that is usually fodder for melodrama and sensationalism, and creates a remarkably sensitive and nuanced portrait of a young woman's urge to a better life. He also had the good fortune of discovering a young Colombian actress named Catalina Sandino Moreno, and she's a revelation, conveying the girl's risk-taking and emotional integrity with quiet intensity. The director also had the good sense to step back and let his young star's presence become the film's dominating note. The result is one of the year's subtlest and most accomplished dramas.

Maria is a 17-year-old Colombian girl who is tired of her soul-deadening factory job, her demanding family and callous boyfriend. She quits her job in a fit of anger, and then finds out she's pregnant, a crisis that makes her vulnerable to a tempting offer: she can make a lot of money very quickly by becoming a "mule," ingesting pellets of heroin, and then traveling to the States, where the drugs will pass through her body and into the hands of the dealers there. Once she agrees, it turns out that the size and the number of pellets are greater than expected, and the trip to New York is grueling, and filled with tension. In the film's second part, in New York, we come to understand Maria's motivations as more complex and interesting than we thought, and Marston's steady hand takes the drama to some moving, unexpected places. There are intriguing connections made between the ritual of becoming a drug mule and Catholic religious symbolism. The picture also takes a fresh approach to the immigrant experience, fraught with suffering and desire. And it all works because the style is careful and understated, and because of Moreno's appealing sincerity and expressiveness.

5. The Corporation (Mark Achbar & Jennifer Abbott).

The year's best documentary covers a huge, daunting subject -- the history and nature of the multinational corporation -- with intelligence and style. Mixing traditional talking head interviews and informative film clips with amusing and inventive graphics, the picture ranges through many different aspects of corporate activity, from Monsanto's suppression of a news story exposing the dangers of a drug used on dairy cows, through IBM complicity in the Nazi death camps, to the brutality and exploitation of sweatshops and the marketing of products to children. At the same time it consistently avoids demonizing individuals, interviewing figures from across the political spectrum while making it abundantly clear that the principles of the institution itself are inherently destructive, regardless of the good or bad intentions of CEOs and other corporate leaders.

The film's cleverest device is to follow up the Supreme Court's fateful 19th century decision giving the corporation the legal rights of a "person" with an inquiry into exactly what kind of "person" this would be, according to the standard diagnostic manual of psychiatry. (It turns out that our corporate friend is a textbook psychopath.) The Corporation is essential viewing for its clear-eyed analysis of the most important institution of our time. It evokes understanding and commitment, rather than mere outrage. And unlike many documentaries, it's never boring.

6. Before Sunset (Richard Linklater).

Linklater is almost alone among American directors in placing conversation -- real conversation, with insights and ideas and missteps -- at the center of his dramatic method. Here he follows up 1995's sublimely youthful Before Sunrise with a wise, playful portrait of how the passing of the years changes our perspective. Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke helped write their own dialogue, and they are fresh and spontaneous and real, which means that they are sometimes foolish too. To top it off, Linklater presents the whole thing in real time -- just eighty minutes of a Paris afternoon for the pair to catch up on things -- and he makes this very difficult feat look easy. A film of thoughtfulness and bittersweet emotion, yet light -- it's hard to be genuinely light without sacrificing substance -- and a film of happiness and regret, with happiness getting the upper hand. The kind of thing we need.

7. The Aviator (Martin Scorsese).

The craftsmanship, breadth, and stylistic flair that characterised the studio era's best films has long been missing from American movies -- but Martin Scorsese is still working, and that means that there are still commercial films with the sweep and power of art. This biopic of Howard Hughes uses brilliant, fluid camerawork, vividly expressive color schemes, and gorgeous production design to bring the world of the 1930s and 40s to life. But underneath the surface lies, as always in Scorsese, a darker aspect: in this case, the tycoon's compulsive fear of germs, linking American ambition and madness. Leonardo DiCaprio proves he has the right stuff in the demanding title role; Cate Blanchett impersonates Kate Hepburn with aplomb. And this is the first time that the film fanatic Scorsese has told a story involving the making of films. You can tell that he loved the project -- the picture is bursting with energy and wit.

8. Tarnation (Jonathan Caouette)

Caouette has cut and spliced his Super-8 amateur films, along with snapshots, home movies, and clips from popular films and TV, while scoring them with tape recordings, answering machine messages, and an eclectic assortment of music, to basically mythologize his life and that of his troubled mother Renee. For such an idea to work, the director must have total faith in the value of his own story as material for art, and in the inseparable nature of real life and poetry. Tarnation works beautifully -- the frenetic editing, mirroring, distortion, intense color schemes, and multiple screen images, among other bold techniques, make the experience both intimate and exhilirating. Caouette's gaze doesn't flinch, especially when it comes to his mentally disturbed mother. This raw honesty is the film's greatest strength -- it's about abuse and resilience, and also about the artist's ability to remake popular culture in his own image, through the power of performance. Caouette proves that a cinema of personal vision and intimacy is still possible.

9. Monster (Patty Jenkins).

A film with the courage to show that there are no monsters, only human beings, and that our dismissal of criminals as beasts only leads us deeper into ignorance and suffering. It does this not by trying to justify the crimes of its main character (based on serial killer Aileen Wuornos) but by bringing the viewer into what it might feel like to be her. This may not be the most artistic film, or even be completely accurate regarding Wuornos's story. But it depicts the emotional realm of a social outcast -- "out there" on the dangerous edge of the world -- with frightening power. Charlize Theron's gut-wrenching performance is indelible; Christina Ricci's unsung supporting work helps it all come together.

10. The Fog of War (Errol Morris).

Morris has never been one for polemics -- his documentaries tend to be exercises in curiosity and ambivalence. Here he's distilled many hours of interviews with former Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara into a haunting essay on the calamity of late 20th century American history and foreign policy. The form seems to take McNamara on his own terms -- dividing the picture into eleven "lessons" of leadership -- while the expertly chosen film clips, special illustrative sequences designed by Morris, and one of Philip Glass's more ominous scores juxtapose the 85-year-old man's fierce intellectual arguments with a gravely ironic undertone. It's one of the rare political documentaries that hits you at a deep emotional level and resonates beyond the memory of the events and issues depicted.

And now for the B-sides:

11. The Triplets of Belleville (Sylvain Chomet).
I know I'm in the minority, but Pixar-style computerized animation leaves me cold. This strange and beautiful cartoon gem, about a French grandmother's search for her kidnapped bicyclist grandson, proves that more traditional styles of animation are still the best. The film's many weird details and conceptions stayed with me, and the story is simply hilarious. (Gross-out of the year: the frogs.) This is just outstanding, brilliant work.

12. This So-Called Disaster (Michael Almereyda).
A record of the rehearsals for a play by author Sam Shepard, with Shepard directing and a cast that includes Sean Penn and Nick Nolte. With patience and a style of fly-on-the-wall informality, the picture communicates both the significance of drama for us, and for those creating it. At the same time, the intimate glimpse backstage highlights the themes of male struggle and despair, father against son, and brother against brother, in Shepard's life and work.

13. Touching the Void (Kevin Macdonald).
A very simple idea -- the story of the disastrous 1985 climb up the Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes by two Australians, narrated by the men themselves while recreated by actors -- yet totally fascinating. With expert use of music and other dramatic devices normally reserved for fiction, Macdonald allows you to experience the limits of human endurance, and what the mind goes through in its struggle to survive, more vividly than any number of ordinary National Geographic-type documentaries could ever do.

14. Osama (Siddiq Barmak).
In Afghanistan's first film since the war, a young girl (Marina Golbahari) disguises herself as a boy in order to work and put food on the table for her widowed mother and grandmother, since the Taliban won't allow them to work or go out in public without a man. Things become very tense when she is pulled out of work and placed in an Islamic boy's school, where she could be executed if her gender is discovered. Golbahari is wonderful, and the film is well-paced and bracingly honest, expressing a great sadness for the crimes and injustices suffered by women under theocratic rule.

15. The Return (Andrei Zvyagintsev).
A very dark, moody, Russian chamber piece about two boys living with their mother in the country. The father, who had abandoned them years before, suddenly returns and takes them on a journey to an isolated island, for a purpose that is unclear. The film has a special feeling and respect for the experiences of children, and it works both as drama and spiritual allegory. The intriguing visual style evokes an emotional terrain too primal for words.

16. The Five Obstructions (Lars von Trier & Jørgen Leth).
A real film buff movie. Von Trier plays a game with his old friend and mentor Leth, in which Leth will remake his 1967 short film The Perfect Human under certain restrictions ("obstructions") set up by von Trier. A wryly amusing peek inside the creative process, with Leth brilliantly wriggling out of each of von Trier's traps, the film ends up going deeper by questioning basic assumptions about the purpose and meaning of art.

17. James' Journey to Jerusalem (Ra'anan Alexandrowicz)
A sweet satirical fable about a young African Christian (Siyabonga Melongisi Shibe) who is sent on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, only to be locked up by immigration and then hired by a contractor to clean houses. As he saves up, hoping to complete his journey, James is gradually lured from a spiritual to a money-centered way of thinking. Sad, funny, and wise all at once, the film is relevant not only to the contradictions in Israeli society, but everywhere.

18. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry).
Gondry teamed up with screenwriter Charlie Kaufman to bring us this subversive take on romantic comedy. The science fiction premise is that the hero (Jim Carrey) enlists the aid of brain specialists to get the memory of his ex-girlfriend (Kate Winslet) erased, just as she had done earlier, but during the process, his heart rebels, setting off an hallucinatory inner journey. The picture has plenty of comic energy, but there's a sadness about relationships underneath the humor, and I think that's what makes the film special.

19. Nói (Dagur Kari).
A black comedy about a teenager (Tomas Lemarquis) going crazy living in a little dead-end town in Iceland. In a style that accentuates the claustrophobia of a closed society, with laconic editing and inventive use of light to portray a sense of lingering depression, the film shows how an intelligent spirit will struggle blindly against the limitations of his personal horizon. Kari has a gift of showing you the absurd side of people without looking down at them, and Nói turns out to be a surprisingly moving experience.

20. Blind Shaft (Li Yang).
Two predatory con men get their victims mineworker jobs by pretending to be relatives -- they then kill them in the mine, create a phony cave-in to cover up the act, and extort money from the bosses in exchange for their silence about unsafe conditions. Shot in a gritty, no-nonsense style, the film's savage critique of the Chinese capitalist miracle is framed in remarkably laconic terms. The tension builds inexorably until the brilliant climax, which is ripe with irony.

Anne Reid

Hiroyuki Sanada

Other performances I admired:
Don Cheadle (Hotel Rwanda)
Anne Reid (The Mother)
Mark Wahlberg (I Heart Huckabees)
Nicole Kidman (Dogville)
Thomas Haden Church (Sideways)
Émmanuelle Béart (Strayed)
Gael García Bernal (The Motorcycle Diaries)
Hiroyuki Sanada (The Twilight Samurai)
Annette Bening (Being Julia)
Mark Ruffalo (We Don't Live Here Anymore)
Liam Neeson & Laura Linney (Kinsey)

Cinematography: Harris Savides, Birth
(A special look that it seems no one else can duplicate.)
Eric Gautier, The Motorcycle Diaries
Dion Beebe and Paul Cameron, Collateral

Music: Angelo Badalamenti, A Very Long Engagement
(OK, so I'm a sucker for lush, old-fashioned movie music.)
Howard Shore, The Aviator
Philip Glass, The Fog of War

Production design: The Aviator

Ho-hum award: Zhang Yimou's martial arts movies. The eye candy is impressive, to be sure. But both Hero and House of Flying Daggers left me curiously unmoved.

Give 'em credit:
Letting Alfonso Cuarón direct Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban was a smart move. Well, it's still a Harry Potter film, but it does have a more sophisticated narrative style and a darker tone.
The script for I Heart Huckabees (David O. Russell & Jeff Baena) tries for something completely new. No, it doesn't always work, but still, there's nothing else like it.
Primer, Shane Carruth's time travel movie, crammed more plot complications into 77 minutes than seemed humanly possible. A bit too compressed for its own good, I think, but that's certainly more admirable than stretching a thin concept out to an ungodly length like most films.
Fahrenheit 9/11
: Yeah, it's a good movie. Yeah, we lost anyway.

Our good docs overfloweth: The Agronomist, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, Control Room, Super Size Me, End of the Century, My Architect, Festival Express

Best re-release: The Battle of Algiers (Gilla Pontecorvo, 1965) -- eerily relevant to our time.

And farewell to:
Ingrid Thulin, Spalding Gray, Ray Stark, Jack Paar, John Randolph,
Mercedes McCambridge, Cecily Adams, Frances Dee, Paul Winfield,
Jan Sterling, Peter Ustinov, Carrie Snodgress, Jose Giovanni, Alan King,
Phil Gersh, Anna Lee, Tony Randall, Lincoln Kilpatrick, Irene Manning,
Nino Manfredi, Ronald Reagan, Marlon Brando, Carlo Di Palma,
Jerry Goldsmith, Virginia Grey, Eugene Roche, David Raksin, Fay Wray,
Elmer Bernstein, Daniel Petrie, Frank Thomas, Fred Ebb, Russ Meyer,
Janet Leigh, Rodney Dangerfield, Christopher Reeve, Theo van Gogh,
Peggy Ryan, Howard Keel, Philippe de Broca, William Sackheim, Susan Sontag, Jerry Orbach, Amrish Puri, Ruth Warrick, Virginia Mayo, Johnny Carson, and Ossie Davis.

©2005 Chris Dashiell