Holy Girl (Lucrecia Martel).
Martel's masterful second feature is a dreamily evocative group portrait
in which the connections within families and between strangers are constantly
shifting in unexpected and disturbing ways. What is evidently familiar
to the characters takes on a strange atmosphere for us, the viewers, as
Martel strands us in the middle of an Argentina hotel, like newly arrived
guests, piecing together the clues of the story from glimpses and incidental
sounds (the soundtrack is almost its own character) until we feel like
the rootless, wandering denizens of the film ourselves. Amalia (María
Alche) takes Catholic classes with her friend Josefina (Julieta Zylberberg),
and the morbid, rarefied doctrines of sainthood and martyrdom that they
absorb in the class are mixed up in their minds with their confused, emerging
sexuality. While Amalia is outside watching a storefront theremin concert
(one of Martel's many weird, humorous details), a man comes up behind
her and touches her sexually. Eventually she finds out that he is a doctor
(Carlos Belloso) attending a conference at the hotel, and she starts to
follow him in the belief that she has found a "calling" to redeem his
soul. In the meantime he is flirting with one of the hotel's owners (Mercedes
Morán), not knowing that she is Amalia's mother.
storyline contains many threads that twist about, seemingly at random,
but all leading to a devastating conclusion. The film is perfectly of
a piece, in style and content, and acts as a challenge to black-and-white
thinking of all kinds. The distinctions between spirituality and sexuality,
innocence and corruption, are depicted as inevitably and permanently blurred.
It is in fact the need, the desire, to make absolute judgments about ourselves,
to fall in line with the certainty of social codes, that produces tragedy.
The finale is as perfectly conceived and deftly executed as one could
hope for. The Holy Girl is both intense and remarkably elusive,
diamond-hard in its style, and steeped in a compassion that is free of
2. 2046 (Wong
is a director who believes, without reservation, in his own personal vision,
and making films that convey that vision alone. 2046 is his most
subjective movie yet, which is why it can seem so daunting. Wong has poured
all of his grief, his longing for an irretrievable past, into this fever
dream of a film, and his obsession with memory extends even into a science
Perhaps the greatest barrier to our understanding the film is the notion
that 2046 is a sequel to In
the Mood for Love. It is not. It is more like the flip
side of the coin, the bitterness of reality when the romantic illusion
has died. Tony Leung's Mr. Chow drifts in and out of relationships with
of women (played by Carina Lau, Gong Li, Faye Wong, and most strikingly,
Zhang Ziyi), to none of whom he can fully give himself. Wong wants nothing
less than to translate deep sadness for lost love into purely visual terms--and
he actually pulls it off. Often he shows a character through a doorway
with half the screen obscured by a wall, or he breaks up the space into
fragments, using mirrors and oblique sightlines. He plays with time and
memory, combining reality with imaginary events or inserting weird intertitles
that pretend to ground the action in specifics while doing exactly the
opposite. He compels a kind of surrender from the viewer, an immersion
in the picture's overwhelming mood of heartsickness. It's terrific filmmaking,
and it's one of a kind.
and Queen (Arnaud Desplechin).
Desplechin takes joy in the language of film, and the free-spirited style
of Kings and Queen flaunts itself at every turn, while the story
shifts at will from family drama to comedy to melodrama to romance. Emmanuelle
Devos plays a single mother about to remarry, haunted by dreams and memories
of her deceased first husband while confronting the fatal illness of her
distant, saturnine father. Meanwhile her self-centered ex-partner (Mathieu
Almaric), in the midst of financial meltdown, finds himself committed
to a psychiatric hospital for reasons unknown. Plots and subplots swirl
around these two central figures, but each character is really the center
of his or her own story, and this dovetails perfectly with Desplechin's
robust method. Subjectivity is the measure of all things, rather than
the idea of one true objective story happening outside of us--the director's
use of jump cuts, along with sudden shifts in time, point of view, and
tone, conveys the vitality and restlessness of an excited and curious
is made easy for you. Hang on for the ride and go down each detour, because
life doesn't have neat beginnings and endings. The director has a talent
for letting the actors play with their roles and expand into realms that
may not have been mapped out in the script. Devos' performance acts as
our eye in the storm--she's beautiful and passionate, yet strangely unaware
of her own responsibilities and betrayals, a most lovable and unreliable
storyteller, much like the film. Almaric plays a force of anarchy with
great zest. His character is always a bit out of synch with the world.
This film is about a woman's struggles, motherhood, relationships, guilt,
men who won't grow up, fathers and daughters, sisters and brothers, letting
go of loved ones, the way hate mixes itself up with love, and many other
things. Kings and Queen stretches itself, and our perspective as
viewers, to encompass the richness of life.
Days (Gus Van Sant).
young rock star (Michael Pitt) wanders through the rooms and surrounding
grounds of his mansion in a fog-like stupor, while his hangers-on drift
around him, oblivious to his plight. It's loosely based on the death of
Kurt Cobain, but this is really only a launching point for Van Sant's
wordless explorations of the thin line between life and death, and the
deep places inside that are hidden even from ourselves.
The film boasts the year's most stunning "look," which is saying a lot
considering the visual whammy that is 2046. Harris Savides' photography
is so vivid it's scary, and it's presented in an unusal aspect ratio that
accentuates the sense of disconnection. Leslie Shatz' unsettling sound
design completes the mix. The relentless focus on the the visual surface
of experience keeps the viewer's attention on the "now" moment, to disorienting
effect. It's all about the inner world of a man who's already dead in
his own mind, yet we are faced with an impenetrable front.
is Van Sant's most radical film to date. Sound, style and image are woven
into a mute portrait of despair. If you open your mind to the film, it
will get inside your head and rumble around for a long time. Last Days
is a work of great formal discipline, an uncompromising meditation on
death, and I expect many viewers might prefer to look away. I was transfixed.
Can Fly (Bahman Gohbadi).
The first major narrative film to be shot in post-Saddam Iraq takes place
in 2002, in a remote village on the Iraqi- Turkish border. 13-year-old
Soran (Soran Ebrahim), nicknamed "Satellite" for
his ability to obtain and install satellite dishes for the village TVs,
acts a a self- appointed dictator of all the children in the hamlet, many
of them orphaned refugees who have lost limbs from the numerous land mines
in the area. They dig up and dismantle these mines in order to sell them
on the underground arms market for food and other necessaries. Satellite
becomes interested in a girl who has recently arrived at a nearby camp,
in the company of her armless brother, who is rumored to be clairvoyant,
and a toddler boy. This little child-family holds secrets that reflect
the irreversible horrors of war.
avoids the temptation of overemphasizing our sense of the children's misery.
Everything is ordinary and matter- of-fact. The daily suffering of child
refugees is shown as a regular aspect of life in this place, at this time.
And the ordinariness is more effective than a thousand polemics. There
is even room for humor, especially with the boy-king Satellite, whose
bossiness can be both obnoxious and strangely endearing. This a film about
war's ravages on kids that is thoroughly mature in approach and rigorous
in style. It's a beautiful and courageous work.
6. Mysterious Skin (Gregg Araki).
Kansas boys are molested by their Little League coach. Brian (Brady Corbet)
doesn't remember, and shuts down emotionally and sexually, in time coming
to believe that he was abducted by aliens. Neil (Joseph Gordon-Leavitt)
remembers everything, and he becomes a teenage prostitute. For most of
the movie the two young men walk separate paths in life, but a fortuitous
series of evens are guiding them to one another.
film bravely acknowledges the complexity and ambivalence of an abuse experience.
Neil knows that he's gay before he is molested, and his belief in his
own participation, the fact that part of him enjoyed what happened, produces
guilt and self-destructiveness. Gordon-Leavitt turns in a very strong
and expressive performance here, permanently shedding his TV kid image.
Araki pulls out the stops, employing bold point-of-view sequences and
colorful visual effects to bring out the story's intensity. At times,
Corbet's part of the story verges on the contrived, but the film's overall
effect is devastating. This is one of the very few movies about sexual
abuse to go beyond fear and judgment and present what it really must feel
like to be a survivor. And the ending is just about perfect.
History of Violence (David Cronenberg).
town family man (Viggo Mortensen) foils an attempted murder and becomes
a hero, but then along comes a creepy bad guy (Ed Harris) claiming that
the good guy used to be someone else. From this premise, Cronenberg crafts
a suspense flick about the duality in a man's soul, and at the same time
poses a challenge to the glamorous concept of violence underpinning the
crime thriller genre. It's the kind of exercise that could easily fall
apart in the wrong hands, but the director's method is seamless. He's
not looking down at us, or even "implicating" us--he's simply letting
both sides of the duality be overtly expressed, rather than denying one
Fine work by Mortensen, and Mario Bello as his anguished wife. Their
two sex scenes contrast the opposite sides of the equation with startling
conviction and immediacy. And even though I deducted points for William
Hurt going over the top, I understand even here where the film is coming
8. Occupation: Dreamland (Garrett Scott
& Ian Olds).
and Olds lived with the Army's 82nd Airborne Division in Fallujah for
six weeks in early 2004. The film follows them on raids in search of arms
and insurgents, while at the same trying to fulfill the mission of maintaining
good public relations with the city's inhabitants. Interspersed with the
tense patrols, the soldiers are interviewed while at home base. Some are
for the war, some against. All of them express frustration with their
confusing orders, and increasing awareness that the Iraqis don't want
them there. In the near three years of the war, this is the first time
I've felt that the experience of being on the ground in Iraq has been
successfully conveyed. The movie doesn't have to make an antiwar point--just
clearly showing how things are does the job. And the film-making is terrific,
not just point the camera and shoot, but framed and edited with a skill
and sense of flow that I wouldn't hesitate to call poetic if the subject
were less disturbing.
Squid and the Whale (Noah Baumbach).
ruthlessly funny and insightful comedy about the struggle of two boys
(Jesse Eisenberg and Owen Kline) to cope with the divorce of their parents
(Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney). The fact that the parents are upscale
writer intellectuals in Brooklyn doesn't justify the conclusion of some
critics that the way these parents and kids relate don't apply to most
divorced families. It's just that the air of academic pretension makes
the situation funny. The style is sharp and observant, the humor is dry,
and the movie's serious side attains a special poignance, with particular
attention paid to the real agonies of adolescence, as portrayed by the
marvelous Eisenberg. Daniels turns in a career-high performance as the
insufferable self-centered fool of a Dad.
10. Born Into Brothels (Zana Briski & Ross
lurid title could give the wrong impression. Yes, English photojournalist
Briski decided to move into the red light district of Calcutta to make
a film about prostitutes, and then got more interested in the lives of
the children there. But what makes this movie special is that she decided
to let the kids tell their own stories by giving them cameras and teaching
them how to shoot photographs. The seven children, four girls and three
boys, aged 10 to 14, took immediately to their new art, creating astonishingly
beautiful and compelling pictures of their lives. We get to know each
one of these kids, and they all have distinct, engaging personalities.
At the same time, we glimpse the fabric of their world through sections
highlighting their own photographs, along with interviews in which they
candidly reveal their hopes and fears. The film shows that creative ability
is present in everyone, and far more powerfully than we might expect.
The beauty of this truth is set against the sadness of the economic and
cultural obstacles in the children's way. The picture is beautifully shot
and communicates a rare feeling of intimacy with its subjects.
And now for the B-sides:
11. Nobody Knows (Hirokazu Koreeda).
kids are abandoned by their mother, and they hide out in a Tokyo apartment
for months on end, believing that they have to keep their presence a secret
in order to stay together. The oldest, a 12-year-old boy, takes on the
role of parent for the others. His excursions into the outside world lead
from wistful desire to sadness. Koreeda has a talent for illuminating
the seemingly ordinary little details of existence, and the film succeeds
at depicting, patiently and precisely, the experience of loneliness and
sorrow from a child's point of view.
Movies about writers usually fall prey to some sort of simplification.
Miller and screenwriter Dan
Futterman were wise enough to use the story of Truman Capote's writing
of In Cold Blood, and his involvement with killer Perry Smith,
as the starting point for somber reflections on ambition, moral complicity,
and guilt. Dominated by Philip Seymour Hoffman's amazing performance in
the title role, the film respects its audience enough to allow it to struggle
through the difficult issues raised by the story without offering any
13. No Direction Home (Martin Scorsese).
better than Scorsese to profile our most important songwriter? The film
focuses on the early years of world-shaking genius and influence, from
the beginning of Dylan's emergence on the folk scene to right before the
1966 motorcycle accident that ended this phase of his career. Special
attention is paid to the need for an artist to grow (as when Dylan "went
electric") even if it means disappointing the expectations of his fans.
There are many music clips I'd never seen before, and plenty of great
interviews, but the real wonder is that Scorsese manages to recreate the
heady atmosphere of that time.
Musique (Jean-Luc Godard).
music" is film itself, and as usual, Godard's ruminations on the state
of the world also explore the significance of film as a symbol of our
condition. With The Divine Comedy as template, we are guided through
a "hell" of war imagery, both from history and Hollywood, and then a long
"purgatory" in Sarajevo, where people are thrown together, witnessing,
talking, ruefully commiserating with one another like spectators to a
disaster that can't be changed. "Heaven" finally merges the opposites
in a dream of human simplicity. The questions in this film, one of the
director's most accessible works, bring us closure more than any answer
15. Grizzly Man (Werner Herzog).
Treadwell camped among Alaskan grizzly bears for thirteen summers, and
eventually he was killed and eaten by one. Using a wealth of amazing footage
shot by Treadwell himself, Herzog takes an opposite tack from the conventional
distance of documentary. His subject, far from being a macho adventurer,
is revealed as a flighty, naive theatrical type, self-obsessed without
being very self-aware, telling the bears how much he loves them in a childlike
voice. Herzog seems to wrestle personally with Treadwell in his elliptical
editing and narration, allowing us to discover more than one point of
view. Ultimately this striking film essay is not about the mystery of
the bears, but about how a human being can become a mystery to himself.
16. Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit
(Nick Park & Steve Box).
As a fan of the three Wallace & Gromit short films, I wondered if the
humor and invention
could be sustained to feature length. Well, they can. The story, involving
the duo's pest-control company, a gardening competition, and a questionable
mind-meld experiment, is uproariously silly. The pace never flags, and
the film is crammed with witty, elaborate detail. Beyond a general sense
of decency and kindness to animals, the film has no social significance
whatsoever. It's hilarious.
17. Look At Me (Agnès Jaoui).
insecure, overweight young woman (Marilou Berry) is tired of people treating
her differently because of her famous writer father (Jean-Pierre Bacri),
who's a self-centered jerk. Complications involve the young woman's singing
teacher and the teacher's writer husband. The picture has a wonderful
satiric feeling for class distinctions, materialism, and the petty side
of the literary world. What a pleasure it is to watch a movie about believable
characters in complex relationships of love, family, and career, with
naturalistic performances by the actors and a script that has wit, patience,
and a graceful structure and rhythm.
18. Brokeback Mountain (Ang Lee).
all the attention paid to, shall we say, the culturally significant content
of Brokeback Mountain, I find it interesting that the film
is really an old-fashioned Hollywood romantic drama of thwarted love.
This is classic American filmmaking, with grand gestures and emotions
casting their spell. The occasional rough spots and improbabilities are
outweighed by the film's dignity and sense of conviction, and by a world-class
performance from Heath Ledger as a taciturn, love-haunted cowboy.
giant of African cinema here tackles the subject of female genital mutilation.
The story concerns four girls in a Burkina Faso village who don't want
to be cut in the so-called purification ceremony. They take refuge with
a woman who is considered the village rebel because she refused to have
her own daughter cut. The woman invokes "Moolaadé," a spell of
protection which cannot be broken without incurring devastating retaliation
by the spirits. Sembene uses the rising tension of this conflict to explore
the whole fabric of village life, with its songs and rhythms and complex
relations between men and women. The non-professional actors seem thorougly
at ease, and the wide-screen composition and color give the picture a
contemplative beauty, even as the tale moves inexorably to a stirring
Moving Castle (Hayao Miyazaki).
is fond of dark and complex stories that are often formally eccentric.
Here we're in a retro-futuristic society embroiled in a deadly air war.
A young woman is turned into an old one by a witch's spell and ends up
working as a housekeeper for a handsome, temperamental sorcerer named
Howl. That's just the bare outline. Suffice it to say that the animation
sports a mind-boggling depth of detail, while the story puts an emphasis
on ordinary aspects of life, such as aging and housework, that is completely
engaging. The film struck me with a sense of profligate richness, an overflow
of untamed feeling and invention.