New World (Terrence Malick).
poetic film encompasses awe, wonder, great suffering, grief, intense inwardness,
and surrender. It centers on the myth of Pocahontas, and although this subject
from childhood history books seems an unlikely source of inspiration, Malick
makes you forget what you thought you knew about it. I say the myth of Pocahontas
because, although she was a real historical person, and the film explores
much of what we really know about her, in Malick's hands she becomes larger
than life, a symbol of America to the English colonists, and to us a promise
of rebirth, even in the face of the tragedy that the European adventure
The New World expresses something close to a
transcendentalist philosophy in cinematic terms. Flying in the face of what
most of us have come to expect from a narrative film, Malick’s ideas
and methods are not focused on story, or even character, but on souls. The
central device--used extensively and with a different purpose than that
of almost any other major director—is the voice-over. The inner voices
of the characters speak quietly as we are enveloped by the images of the
brilliant world. It is as if the film is a dreamscape with the drama happening
only in the inmost thoughts. Here the thoughts are those of Captain John
Smith (Colin Farrell), and later another colonist played by Christian Bale,
but most movingly by Pocahontas herself, in a luminous turn by a young actress
named Q'Orianka Kilcher.
are you? Who am I? What is this drama of life, this procession of events
in which we are swept up? These are the self-questionings of the wanderers--
the English who find themselves in what seems a virgin paradise, and later,
Pocahontas, who goes to London, a new world of her own. The struggles and
miseries of human beings take place against the staggering beauty and mystery
of the natural world. Malick employs images of nature as reflections of
love and spiritual awareness piercing through the mundane drama of history.
The scenes are not propelled forward as they usually are in a story film.
Instead, we are suspended in the moment. The film demands a state of openness.
I feel an uncanny affinity with Malick’s world view--this was the
only picture I went to see twice this year. The New World is an
extremely ambitious work of personal vision, and as such it’s not
immune from an occasional overreaching. But it’s also one of the rare
cases of a film that attains a sense of the sublime.
and terror, the classic elements of tragedy, are taken to another level
in Haneke’s latest disturbing and provocative experiment. An affluent
married couple (Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche) receive a series
of videotapes showing their home from the vantage point of the street.
The belief that they are being stalked eventually starts to fragment the
couple's relationship. The husband gets a hunch that the person sending
the tapes is a figure from his childhood, an Algerian boy involved in
an incident so guilt-ridden that Georges conceals his suspicions from
his wife. His memory has connections to a wider historical guilt--that
of France itself in the disastrous Algerian war of the 50s and 60s, and
to a prevalent yet barely acknowledged racism and fear of difference.
is interested in implicating the audience, drawing our attention to the
act of watching a film itself, and this meta-fictional critique reflects
the ethical and psychological dilemmas of the narrative. The mystery can
easily lead us astray—for instance, if we assume that the Auteuil
character was actually guilty of something, rather than simply notice
his inability to acknowledge guilt feelings—but this being “led
astray” is perhaps part of the point. In addition to the story's
social and political echoes, the central mystery of who is sending the
tapes takes on a strange power. We are not given an answer directly, but
here again form and content reflect one another, resulting in the collapse
of the fictional illusion that we tend to assume when we watch a movie
and in a sense, forget that it's only a movie. Describing Caché
in these ways makes it sound like a mere intellectual exercise, but the
experience of watching the film is visceral and deeply troubling. It still
Nightmare (Hubert Sauper).
rigorously truthful film about globalization’s destructive impact
on the poor starts with the introduction of the Nile perch, a fish that
is sometimes more than six feet long, into Lake Victoria, Africa. The
perch has gradually killed off most of the smaller species, and poses
a threat to the ecological survival of the lake itself. From there, Sauper
carefully explores the horror and degradation experienced by impoverished
fishermen and other fish workers, along with prostitutes and street kids
The film is centered wholly upon the candid on-site words and actions
of the people involved, so that whatever "case" is made seems
to unfold in the same way it might have for a visiting observer. We see
businessmen making excuses, a security guard explaining how war can be
a good thing (since soldiers get regular pay and decent food), and we
meet sad and eloquent children displaying a knowledge of suffering beyond
their years. Sauper also interviews the Russian pilots who fly the perch
out of Tanzania to grace the tables of restaurants in Europe. But what
are the cargo planes bringing into the country? The director’s off-screen
voice continues to ask the difficult questions. When the truth finally
becomes clear, we realize that we are not witnessing some unavoidable
tragedy, but a sinister and deadly form of neo-colonialism. Darwin’s
Nightmare is a brave, and very distressing, look at the face of exploitation,
a shattering human document.
4. Iraq in Fragments
Taking the opposite approach of Sauper’s film (like a modernist
contrasted with a classical style), this three-part portrait of occupied
Iraq uses bold art-film methods to create a feeling of immediacy. Most
previous films on the subject have either been critiques of the political
situation, or focused on the experiences of American soldiers. Here the
crisis is viewed from the perspectives of Iraqis. Longley spent three
years in Iraq, from the fall of Baghdad in 2003 to early last year, and
he gained an astonishing level of trust from the people he filmed.
first part is about an eleven-year old boy, a Sunni, living in a poor
section of Baghdad and working in a machine shop. The boss abuses and
humiliates him, and the relationship seems to reflect the psychology of
living under dictatorship and occupation. The second part takes us to
southern Iraq where militant Shiites rally behind the radical cleric Moktada
el-Sadr. Here we are right in the midst of the simmering anger and religious
zealotry that has helped ignite civil war, and the tension is palpable.
In the third part, we meet a boy living in a Kurdish village in northern
Iraq. The Kurds have established their own separatist enclave, and this
section seems more hopeful, but there are conflicts and contradictions
here as well.
Longley uses rapid editing and jump cuts, avoiding the usual naturalistic
pace of documentary. The color photography is stunning. We may draw political
conclusions from what we see—the people in the film are not shy
about their opinions, which often accompany the images in voice-over.
But Longley is even-handed—the point is to catch a glimpse of the
reality, complex and tragic, of this beautiful, unfortunate land.
(Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne).
Dardenne brothers have mapped out a territory all their own: small-scale
stories about people on the margins, poor and working class, struggling
with their situations and coming to terms with moral and spiritual dilemmas.
Here we have Bruno (Jérémie Renier), a petty thief and hustler,
employing local kids to do burglaries and purse snatchings and then pawning
what he takes in. He's always on his cell phone, trying to swing some
deal or other, and although he's playful and affectionate towards his
girlfriend Sonia (Déborah François), he seems very passive
and uninterested in his new baby son, Jimmie. When Sonia allows him to
take the baby on a walk in a stroller while she waits in line for her
welfare check, Bruno arranges to have his baby sold on the black market,
telling her later that "we can always have another one." She
collapses and is hospitalized; he decides to somehow get the baby back.
Dardennes' unusual style involves a hand-held camera following the characters'
incessant movements, lack of musical score or emotional cues, non-professional
actors, and the use of something close to real time in many of the sequences.
The plot element of baby selling is sensational, but the point is not
merely that poverty breeds ignorance and callousness, but that there's
still the possibility of moral awareness even in the most unlikely places
or people. What creates this possibility? It's only after a great deal
of suffering and attempts on the part of Bruno to evade the question that
the film finally lets us discover the answer. Part of that is realizing
who the child of the title really is, and the film’s quietly moving
ending is both beautiful and true.
6. Half Nelson
like it when a film bursts the bounds of genre—in this case, the
inner-city teacher film. Half Nelson is about a white Brooklyn
junior high history teacher named Dan (Ryan Gosling), smart and witty,
who uses unconventional means to inspire interest in the civil rights
movement and progressive history in general. Trouble is, he's also addicted
to crack. One day he's getting high in a locker room after hours, when
one of his students, a 13-year-old black girl named Drey (Shareeka Epps),
comes back for her sneakers and finds teach in a bathroom stall, strung
out and disoriented. After this event, Drey keeps seeking out Dan in friendship.
We witness their different yet parallel lives intertwine, and eventually
some truth, sad and hopeful by turns, comes to light.
direction is a model of patience, understatement, and observation of the
way real people act. Gosling’s performance is brimming with humor
and pathos, and many-sided in a way that even includes being unlikable
at times. Epps is a revelation, serious to the point of heartbreak, making
you forget her character's age until a sudden smile or moment of vulnerability
breaks through. The picture is about the dilemma facing people who want
to do something about the suffering in the world around them, but are
plagued with feelings of powerlessness. A late sequence in which Dan's
real family and Drey's surrogate one act out their dysfunctions, culminates
in a terrific scene where the two friends meet in the worst possible circumstances.
This is a movie that faces the hardest realities with real feeling and
President’s Last Bang (Im Sangsoo).
This fictionalized account of South Korean President Park Chunghee's 1979
assassination injects a bracing, sardonic view of politics into what could
have been just another violent thriller. Most of the drama takes place
in the President’s safe house, where he has a little drinking party
with two nubile young women, accompanied by his chief bodyguard, his secretary,
and Kim, the head of the Koran CIA (Baek Yun-shik). Kim is plotting to
assassinate his boss that very night, with the help of his stoic right-hand
man and a hothead chief agent (Han Suk-kyu), who is as close as we come
to a point-of-view character in the movie. The motives are murky, the
crime seems curiously unplanned, as if done on a sudden impulse, and precious
little thought is given to a strategy for the aftermath. Just about everything
that could go wrong, does.
is determined to rip the veil away from power and the mystique of history,
to show the ordinary baseness of human character and actions beneath.
The greatest matters of state are resolved in terms of crude vanity, resentment,
and self-interest. Yet he doesn't turn the characters into satiric cartoons--the
behavior and dialogue seems all too real. It’s an anti-heroic slapstick
suspense film, with uneasy laughter shading into profound disgust.
8. Letters From Iwo Jima
remarkable look at the losing side in the battle of Iwo Jima. Nothing
fancy here—in fact, Eastwood’s old Hollywood style seems more
pared down than usual. The approach is right because the film’s
subject is the Japanese soldiers’ struggle with themselves and each
other, not the battle. The official line was that soldiers needed to fight
to the death, or commit suicide, rather than surrender, and we sense that
this is linked with empire and subservience to its leader. Here it’s
played out in the casual attitudes of the officers and soldiers, and then
in the desperate decisions of battle, as the hope of life and memory of
family causes resistance in the mind of the soldier Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya)
wonderful how Eastwood and his screenwriter Iris Yamashita have made this
struggle so vivid and tragic, when the premise is so foreign to Americans
to begin with. This isn’t an anti-war movie in the usual sense—there’s
no political critique. The point is that war is fought by individual human
beings, each with his own past, family, desires, hopes and fears. This
is seen more powerfully in a case where the cause is lost, and unjust
in our eyes. The fight is between notions of honor that are really masks
of cruelty, and simple shared humanity. One of the soldiers was sent to
Iwo Jima because he was unable to shoot a child’s dog when ordered
to. That sums it up.
Letters From Iwo Jima is anchored by a world-class performance
from Ken Watanabe as the general in command of the doomed island force.
I was fascinated by the way the film refrains from making war even the
slightest bit exciting. The pale colors of the photography match the sense
of exhaustion and futility of war that this movie so beautifully conveys.
Science of Sleep (Michel Gondry).
takes his fascination with dreams and fantasies and runs it up against
the realities of love and romantic obsession. In the movies, these two
things are usually the same, but this film doesn’t settle for that
softer, easier way.
Gael García Bernal plays Stéphane, a young Mexican artist
in France who has trouble distinguishing his waking life from his dreams.
One of the film’s recurring motifs has him hosting a dream TV cooking
show where he plays all the instruments, interviews guests, and creates
dreams out of various ingredients. He also likes to create unusual art
objects using household materials, and when he meets his next-door neighbor
Stéphanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg), he discovers that she shares
his surrealistic interests.
amazing art direction and production design employs funny animation effects
using paper, cellophane, and all kinds of unusual props. The camerawork
and editing is intuitive, fast and fluid. The sensibility is off-the-wall
and often hilarious. Even so, whenever the story seems to be entering
fairy tale wish-fulfillment territory, we are pulled up short by Gondry’s
melancholy vision of the difficulties of romance and love. Stéphane
may be charming and cute, but he’s also immature, spiteful, self-centered,
and incredibly insecure. His slipping in and out of dream states becomes
a painful symbol of his desperate neediness and disconnection. There’s
a special insight here about the drawbacks involved in being an artist-give
Gondry credit for showing both the beauty and the limitations of the life
10. Neil Young: Heart of Gold
Oh, you say, it’s just a concert film. Well, yes, it is a film of
Neil Young’s premiere performance of his Prairie Wind album at Nashville’s
fabled Ryman Auditorium. But Young is not your everyday musician, and
Demme shows how to imprint a concert event on your soul, and make it about
more than just a show.
With the help of Demme’s impeccable visual sense, Young evokes a
sense of gratitude for the American musical tradition through beautiful
songs exploring dreams, mortality, the bonds of family, and coming to
terms with both our loves and our failings. The concert is all of a piece—certain
as not showing the audience, using different light set-ups, and holding
shots where other directors might move all over the place—create
a feeling of warmth in which the songs flow together into a larger narrative,
a cinematic dream state. Every year there has to be at least one film
on my list that helps me feel grateful for life, and reminds me of love
and wonder and the belief in higher things. This is the one.
Otar Left… (Julie
A portrait of three generations of women in Tblisi, Georgia—grandmother,
mother, and daughter—that is true to the fragility, tensions, and
hard-won wisdom of life. When the son in Paris dies in an accident, the
two younger women foolishly hide the fact from the doting grandmother.
This is a film where the stories of women are central, shot with a sense
of careful detail and regard for city life and domestic routines. A theme
emerges—our journeys start with family, and continue only by finding
a way to break free from family while retaining some connection.
We Fight (Eugene Jarecki).
An ambitious history of modern American militarism, brilliantly edited,
Why We Fight shows that the executive branch's preemption of war-making
powers from the Congress started long ago, as part of the development
of a permanent war footing after World War II. It examines the military,
the weapons contractors, the "think tanks" that now determine
policy, and the changing views of Americans about war. Jarecki makes a
strong case that the military-industrial complex is threatening our freedom
and well-being as a nation.
of Men (Alfonso Cuarón).
A dystopian thriller about a time (2027) when worldwide infertility spells
a human race without a future. In other words, like the best science fiction,
this is a critique of the present, taking well-aimed swipes at “homeland
security” and anti-immigrant hysteria, among other things. Clive
Owen shines as the low-key hero trying to get the world’s only pregnant
woman to safety. The dialogue is brisk and intelligent; while Cuarón
manages to combine heart-stopping excitement with gravity and a sense
of loss. A film to be reckoned with.
Scholl: the Final Days (Marc Rothemund).
Sophie Scholl was a 21-year-old university student in Munich who helped
launch an underground anti-Nazi group in 1942 called The White Rose. The
film details her arrest, interrogation, trial, and execution. Fueled by
Julia Jentsch’s terrific performance in the title role, the picture
gets more intense as Sophie takes each heroic step towards her ultimate
fate. The picture may prompt you to ask yourself how far your own courage
could take you in her situation.
15. Deliver Us From Evil (Amy
documentary about Father Oliver O'Grady, a priest who sexually abused
countless numbers of girls and boys in California over three decades.
Berg’s interviews with him reveal a man whose apparent remorse masks
a peculiar obliviousness to the suffering he has caused. He was enabled
by the Catholic hierarchy, including the current archbishop of L.A., who
instead of turning him in, would move him off to other parishes where
he would abuse other kids. The film scrupulously examines why church attitudes
about power, sex, and authority have resulted in such incredible corruption
Appreciation (Andrew Bujalski).
A dryly funny, fly-on-the wall view of a group of young people in New
York—self-conscious characters who talk around their feelings, constantly
hesitate, and seem to completely inhabit the moment while staying in their
heads. Bujalski practices a sort of aesthetic-by-subtraction, in which
the absence of color, sets, make-up, good-looking actors, or a budget
provides relief from the usual movie nonsense and leaves us alone with
the humor, and the discomfort, of our self-regard.
17. The Proposition (John Hillcoat).
western is dead. Long live the Australian western. Lawless colonial Queensland
is the setting for a tale of revenge that takes unexpected turns. A captain
(Ray Winstone, great as usual) captures two of the outlaw Burns brothers,
and threatens to hang the youngest one unless Charlie Burns (Guy Pearce)
can bring him older brother Arthur (Danny Huston), the head of the gang.
Beautifully shot, the picture has a raw feeling of dread and fatalism,
and the violence is not taken lightly. Nick Cave wrote the script, and
he does a lot with few words.
18. Pan’s Labyrinth (Guillermo
that men do, reflected in the dark fables of childhood. In 1944 Spain,
a 10-year-old girl (Ivana Baquero) goes with her mother to live with her
new stepfather (Sergi López), a brutal fascist officer in charge
of mopping up pockets of rebel resistance. While the outside world descends
into violence, the girl enters a magic labyrinth where she is given three
difficult tasks by a sinister-looking being. Del Toro’s baroque
style is full of dark flourishes, a heady brew of melodrama and horror.
He has fashioned a tragedy about the way children are trapped in the maze
of adult arrogance and power, and offers the slender thread of self-sacrifice
as a way out.
19. The Queen (Stephen Frears).
I find it amusing to see this film, in the midst of Oscar hype,
marketed as some sort of uplifting spectacle. In fact, The Queen
is an agreeably modest, witty social comedy. The subject is the curious
behavior of Queen Elizabeth II and her family after the death of Princess
in a 1997 car accident, and in a wider sense the film examines the ridiculous
game of images that politics and public life in general has become. The
disconnect between the banality of everyday palace life, out of touch
with reality behind a wall of privilege, and the rising tides of events
outside, gives the film a delicious feeling of absurdity, but Frears doesn’t
go overboard into farce or caricature, and in this he is aided immeasurably
by the brilliant work of Helen Mirren in the title role.
Russes (Daniel Geller and Dana Goldfyne).
is a case where a film’s technique doesn’t stand out very
much, beyond the virtues of simplicity and directness. But the subject—the
exciting Russian ballet companies that dominated the form in Europe and
America during the first part of the 20th century—is so marvelous
that a conscious style would only seem an intrusion. The numerous clips
from actual ballets of the period, punctuated by interviews with the dancers
themselves, create a blissful, enchanting effect.