Thus Spake
the Film Snob

Dashiell's favorites of 2001

A good year for Haters. A bad year for the rest of us. With all the depressing crap going down, I remembered again why I love movies - at their best they offer truth, and a vision of something better. However, with one bona fide masterpiece, this counts as a good year, cinema-wise. There was never any doubt as to my Number One. Numbers Two and Three were practically a toss-up - Classic versus Modern. Because I am a Snob, Classic won. Ranking is kind of silly anyway - we all know that. But for some reason, it's fun. The reason I value a film, I have discovered, has to do first of all with how deep it hits me, and only after that with its style or technical mastery.

1. In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar-Wai)
Love, loss, longing. Without using such words, Wong creates the feelings - creates them as if they were happening bodily - through utterly controlled, sheer visual mastery. Rarely does a filmmaker's personal style permeate every frame of a picture the way Wong's does here. It's as if he painted the movie by hand. This story of a mood long gone, of two people who come together briefly to rehearse their own grief, is the tenderest, the most beautiful, the deepest and most humane film of many a year.

2. The House of Mirth (Terence Davies)
Davies' classicism, his patient attention to social masks and subtle gradations of feeling, may not fit with prevailing styles, but it's a well nigh perfect match with Edith Wharton's novel. The film has a style of great formal integrity and beauty, and a brave, vulnerable performance by Gillian Anderson, who portrays with astonishing skill the painful awakening of a tragic heroine. Among the supporting cast, Eric Stoltz and Laura Linney are outstanding. It was the orphan stepchild of film this year, but I have to believe that it can only gain admirers over time.

3. Mulholland Drive (David Lynch)
To say that the film is weird and eccentric is, I suppose, a way of keeping it at arm's length. But Lynch's dream's eye view of things, his surreal, mordant humor, his keen sense of the grotesque, have more coherence than most of the "normal" films out there. There are so many layers to this fascinating, troubling film - psychological mystery, scathing Hollywood critique, anti-misogynist dream play, the exhausted self-reflection of film genre. But what I love most is the compassion, underneath it all, for a desperate, hopeless lover.

4. The Gleaners and I (Agnès Varda)
Varda's art is all about openness, letting go, and allowing the manifold aspects of life to enter and enliven her work. With little more than a camera and a tank of gas, she fashioned this meditation on the world of gleaning - gathering leftovers from the harvest - that extends to the homeless who survive on other people's garbage, to the makers of "found" or "junk" art, and to various human cultures that are hidden away in the margins. Along the way she explores the nature of film itself, and her own aging and mortality. It's a finely crafted little jewel that puts most big-budget films to shame.

5. Faithless (Liv Ullmann)
The great actress now shows remarkable assurance as a director, in this searing drama of regret over past betrayal, scripted by Ingmar Bergman. The story concerns an affair that destroyed a marriage. The style relies on the intensity of dramatic monologue, taking us ever deeper into the pain until it shakes us to the roots. The young woman, the tragic lover who visits a dying old man in his waking dream, is played by Lena Endre. It's a shattering, unforgettable performance.

6. Ratcatcher (Lynne Ramsay)
Like a silent advocate, Ramsay takes the point of view of a poor child (the heartbreaking William Eadie) in the slums of Glasgow, and holds it there with full, heartfelt engagement. The gentle style lends dignity to the struggles of an inarticulate soul.

7. The Vertical Ray of the Sun (Tran Anh Hung)
Hung achieves something close to total sensual immersion in this languorous portrait of the loves and infidelities of a Hanoi family. I was enthralled by the film's delicious sense of everyday physical beauty, and its evocation of sleep as a metaphor for serenity and acceptance.

8. George Washington (David Gordon Green)
I wish more directors had some of Green's artistic shortcomings. He takes great risks in this sad, intriguing movie about a group of kids - mostly black - who try to make sense out of the nothingness of their world. The risks don't always pay off. But his uncompromising commitment to a vision of total abandonment gives the work more power and importance than is possible from the timid approach of most dramas.

9. Under the Sand (François Ozon)
This film about loss and survival is remarkable for not taking the point of view of omniscient knowledge, but of mystery. With his spare, ascetic style, Ozon explores the unknown regions of grief with complete respect for the darkness. Charlotte Rampling is our guide, in a performance of strange and stirring beauty.

10. Divided We Fall (Jan Hrebejk)
To attempt a comic flavor in a film about the calamities of World War II is a problematic task. In this story of a couple hiding a Jewish refugee under the nose of their Nazi friend, Hrebejk succeeds because his wry wit is founded in compassion for people's fears, needs, and faults. Courage is achieved when we acknowledge our limitations. The picture is also a marvelous tribute to the Czech New Wave's cinematic legacy.

And now, the B-sides:
11. La Bûche (Danièle Thompson)
For Christmas-haters everywhere, a smart and subtle comedy about three adult sisters battling family dysfunction during the holidays. The actresses (Sabine Azéma, Emmanuelle Béart, and Charlotte Gainsbourg) are all interesting in different ways.
12. The Circle (Jafar Panahi)
A tense drama that follows a succession of women on the run in Iran, seeking in various ways the freedom that is their due. Panahi launches a direct and courageous attack on male supremacy.
13. Va Savoir (Jacques Rivette) Theater merges with real life, as six characters play a whimsical bedroom round robin. A sunny film by a master in a minor key; Jeanne Balibar anchors the story with her charm.
14. The Taste of Others (Agnès Jaoui) This warm comedy of surprising wisdom, about a philistine businesman who falls for an actress, challenges habitual judgments about taste, and offers self-definition as the true road to romance.
15. Memento (Christopher Nolan)
Nolan's time-twisting mind bender - a mental puzzle cast in film noir form - creates a fine sense of dread, while replicating in the viewer its memory-impaired protagonist's weird dislocation.
16. Before Night Falls (Julian Schnabel)
The story of Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas is brought vividly to life, with credit due to Schnabel's keen sense of an artist's point of view, and the powerhouse performance of Javier Bardem in the lead role.
17. Amores Perros (Alejandro González Iñárritu)
Mexico City as a modern inferno, with dogs as metaphors both for its inhabitants' yearnings and their fatalistic despair. The stories are uneven at times, but I admire the film's rhythm and gritty urban vision.
18. Fighter (Amir Bar-Lev)
A documentary following two elderly Czech Holocaust survivors on a trip to Europe to retrace their stories. The film is unusual for its humor and for the provocative and engaging dialogue that ensues between the two different experiences and points of view.
19. The Low Down (Jamie Thraves)
For once, a movie about a 20-something, in life transition and struggling with commitment, that has no trace of the affliction of self-conscious irony or cool. Just interesting, amusing, realistic dialogue, and an appealing performance by Aidan Gillen.
20. In the Bedroom (Todd Field).
Contrary to the opinions of some critics, this is an anti-revenge, anti-catharsis tragedy. Field's fledgling status sometimes shows, but his pacing is right, and he's blessed with fine work from Tom Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek.

Other performances I admired this year:
Ben Kingsley, Sexy Beast
Maggie Cheung, In the Mood for Love
Ed Harris, Pollock
Naomi Watts, Mulholland Drive
Gene Hackman, The Royal Tenenbaums
Haley Joel Osment, A.I.: Artificial Intelligence
Thora Birch, Ghost World
Sergi Lopez, With a Friend Like Harry...
Kerry Washington, Our Song
Jack Nicholson, The Pledge
Eriq Ebouaney, Lumumba
Carole Bouquet, The Bridge

Eriq Ebouaney

Christopher Doyle & Mark Lee Ping-bin, In the Mood for Love
Mark Lee Ping-bin (again), The Vertical Ray of the Sun
Roger Deakins, The Man Who Wasn't There

Score: Adrian Johnston, The House of Mirth
Angelo Badalamenti, Mulholland Drive
Carter Burwell, The Man Who Wasn't There

Best Production Design / Art Direction:
The Fellowship of the Ring - what did you think I was going to say?
Runners-up: The Royal Tenenbaums, Amélie.

Avenue of the Overrated: Moulin Rouge

Ho-Hum Award: The Score

Interesting Failure Award: A.I.: Artificial Intelligence.
First half, interestingly good. Second half, interestingly bad.

Worst Idea: Digitally erasing the World Trade Center from movies.

Fond Farewells: Ray Walston, Dale Evans, Howard Koch, Stanley Kramer, Ann Sothern, William Hanna, Beatrice Straight, Harry Secombe, Jason Miller, Whitman Mayo, Arlene Francis, Imogene Coca, Anthony Quinn, Carroll O'Connor, Jack Lemmon, Troy Donahue, Pauline Kael, Victor Wong, Dorothy Maguire, Herbert Ross, George Harrison, Nigel Hawthorne, Eileen Heckart, Julia Phillips, The Shooting Gallery film series, The Bill of Rights (if we're not careful).

Let's hope 2002 is a good year for Lovers.....

©2002 Chris Dashiell