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


SIGNS AND WONDERS
A FILM SNOB'S FAVORITES OF '05
by Chris Dashiell

It was an unusually good year in film, albeit mostly outside the confines of the multiplex. On the margins, artists are still creating exciting and challenging movies. Meanwhile, formulaic Hollywood blockbusters are tanking in increasing numbers. Kingdom of Heaven, Doom, Sahara, The Island, and the list goes on. Would that execs would see the writing on the wall, but I doubt it.

As always, my criteria was that a film had to have played on the big screen in my burg to be eligible, and be no more than three years old. I was tempted to list all the films that never made it here as my number 20, from sheer envy of those big cities that have screens to spare for films by Jia Zhangke or Apichatpong Weerasethakul, directors that are just names to me so far (not to mention difficult to pronounce). In the future I may have to allow DVDs on my list, since it looks like that's the only way I'll get to see such movies, many of which are now being released directly without any U.S. screen time at all.

Pop quiz: what country has a capitalist economy, conducts rigged elections, tortures prisoners, and regularly engages in domestic spying? Answer: China. Happy Year of the Dog!

1. The 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.

The 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 comforting illusions.

2. 2046 (Wong Kar-Wai).

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 fiction future.

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 a series 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.

3. Kings 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 mind.

Nothing 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.

4. Last Days (Gus Van Sant).

A 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.

This 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.

5. Turtles 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.

Ghobadi 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).

Two 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.

The 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.

7. A History of Violence (David Cronenberg).

Small 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 of them.

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 from.

8. Occupation: Dreamland (Garrett Scott & Ian Olds).

Scott 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.

9. The Squid and the Whale (Noah Baumbach).

A 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 Kauffman).

The 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).

Four 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.

12. Capote (Bennett Miller).

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 clear answers.

13. No Direction Home (Martin Scorsese).

Who 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.

14. Notre Musique (Jean-Luc Godard).

"Our 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 could.

15. Grizzly Man (Werner Herzog).

Timothy 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).

An 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).

With 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.

19. Mooladé (Ousmane Sembene).

The 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 climax.

20. Howl's Moving Castle (Hayao Miyazaki).

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.



Sibel Kekilli


Isild Le Besco



Last Days



Winter Soldier


Other performances I admired:
Sibel Kekilli (Head-On)
Börje Ahlstedt (Saraband)
Amy Adams (Junebug)
Justin Theroux (The Baxter)
David Strathairn (Good Night, and Good Luck)
Catherine Keener (Capote)
Ralph Fiennes (The Constant Gardener)
Isild Le Besco (À Tout de Suite)

Cinematography:
Harris Savides (Last Days)
Runners-up:
Christopher Doyle, Kwan Pun Leung & Lai Yiu-Fai (2046)
Adam Kimmel (Capote)

Music: Joe Hisaishi (Howl's Moving Castle)
Runners-up:
Alexandre Desplat (Syriana)
Julian Nott
(Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit)

Production design: 2046

Best reissue: Winter Soldier (1972).
Required viewing in the age of sanitized war coverage.

Best fucking TV series ever: Deadwood
Consistently funny and exciting, wonderful acting, brought to you by David Milch & co.

The documentary renaissance continues:
Besides the three that made my top 20, there were many other good non-fiction films covering a wide array of subjects.
Fascinating events and people:
Mad Hot Ballroom (Marilyn Agrelo). NYC kids flower as they learn and compete in ballroom dancing.
In the Realms of the Unreal (Jessica Yu). The sad, bizarre story of outsider artist Henry Darger.
William Eggleston in the Real World

(Michael Almereyda). The photographer of the ordinary, captured by a fellow oddball.
Murderball (Henry Alex Rubin & David Adam). Hurray for quadriplegic wheelchair rugby players.
The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill (Judy Irving). San Francisco recluse finds a purpose through caring for neighborhood wild parrots.
Tell Them Who You Are (Mark Wexler). The son of famed cinematographer Haskell Wexler makes a movie about the difficulty of making a movie about his difficult father.
Twist of Faith (Kirby Dick). Portrait of a man who survived a Catholic priest's sexual abuse, with all the loose emotional ends left unresolved, just like in life.
Henry Langlois: the Phantom of the Cinematheque
(Jacques Richard). An exhaustive look at cinephelia's founding father.

Politics and social issues:
The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till
(Keith & Kevin A. Beauchamp). Hearbreaking account of the murder of a 14-year old black boy by racists in 1955 Mississippi--a case that helped spark the civil rights movement.
Enron: the Smartest Guys in the Room (Alex Gibney). How the heads of a giant energy company ripped everyone off (including the state of California) and why it happened.
La Sierra (Scott Dalton & Margarita Martinez). An intimate look at Colombian kids in a Medellin neighborhood, all involved in way or another in the local paramilitary gang--with no future but killing or being killed.
The Yes Men (Chris Smith, Dan Ollman & Sarah Price). Marvelous pranksters impersonating World Trade Organization officials at conferences and presenting outrageous anti-life proposals that are listened to respectfully without anyone seeming to notice.
Wal-Mart: the High Cost of Low Price
(Robert Greenwald). Thoroughly documents the destructive effects that result when the giant parasite Wal-Mart descends on communities.





In the Realms of the Unreal






Murderball






La Sierra

 


The Yes Men





Munich



Good Night, and Good Luck

Give 'em credit:
Spielberg took a chance with Munich. Being Spielberg, he can't resist some empty razzle-dazzle, including the stupid idea of intercutting Eric Bana's sex scene with a climactic flashback to the Olympic atrocity. But the film is consistently dark, and sticks to its purpose to the end. He's getting slammed for it by ideologues who view ethical doubt of any kind as betrayal. They are wrong. This is a film about how assassination can damage the spirit of the assassin, not about moral equivalency with the targets, as the knee-jerk crowd would like you to think.
And: George Clooney scores a knock-out against the corrupt state of present day journalism with Good Night, and Good Luck, his stylized vision of Edward R. Murrow's stand against the fearmonger (and ancestor of our current tormentors) Joe McCarthy.
Also: Stephen Gaghan doesn't bother to explain everything for you in Syriana. Sure, it's hard to follow all the threads--but part of the point here is to portray the bewildering labyrinth of government and corporate skullduggery as the mess that it is actually is, rather than just giving us a slick, logical puzzle.

Ho-hum award: Cinderella Man.
Heroes without flaws are so boring.

Avenue of the overrated: Crash.
An assortment of plot gimmicks disguised as social commentary. It's annoying that a film pretending to have something meaningful to say about race should be so facile, contrived, and heavy-handed.
Runners-up:
Finding Neverland.
Sentiment without substance.
Me and You and Everyone We Know.
Gives "quirky" a bad name.

Evil movie of the year: Hostel. By the (un)holy name of Val Lewton, I declare this truth: sadism is not the same thing as horror.

Thank heaven: No more Star Wars.

And farewell to:
John Vernon, Arthur Miller, Brian Kelly, Dan O'Herlihy, Sandra Dee, Willis Hall, John Raitt, Simone Simon, Teresa Wright, Debra Hill, Don Durant, Barney Martin, Debralee Scott, Ruth Hussey, John Mills, Mason Adams, Maria Schell, Elisabeth Fraser, Frank Gorshin, Henry Corden, J.D. Cannon, Stephen Elliott, Howie Morris, Thurl Ravenscroft, Ismail Merchant, Eddie Albert, Leon Askin, Lucy Richardson, Michael Billington, Anne Bancroft, Christopher Fry, Dana Elcar, Ed Bishop, Lane Smith, Paul Winchell, John Fiedler, June Haver, Evan Hunter, Gretchen Franklin, Kevin Hagen, Frances Langford, Geraldine Fitzgerald, James Doohan, Pat McCormick, Barbara Bel Geddes, Joe Ranft, Brock Peters, Michael Sheard, Bob Denver, Robert Wise, Ronnie Barker, Sid Luft, Mary Wimbush, Constance Moore, Tommy Bond, Don Adams, Jerry Juhl, Hamilton Camp, Nipsey Russell, Louis Nye, Eugene "Porky" Lee, Lloyd Bochner, Skitch Henderson, Jean Carson, Sheree North, Moustapha Akkad, Ralph Edwards, Harold Stone, Constance Cummings, Pat Morita, Marc Lawrence, Wendie Jo Sperber, Jean Parker, Mary Hayley Bell, Mary Jackson, Jack Colvin, Richard Pryor, Robert Newmyer, John Spencer, Vincent Schiavelli, Patrick Cranshaw, Tony Franciosa, Fayard Nicholas, Chris Penn, and Shelley Winters.


©2006 Chris Dashiell
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