There are readers out there who have been known to complain, and with
some justice, about this habit that film critics have of compiling year-end
lists. Yes, it can be trivial and tiresome if there's not enough thought
involved. Witness Eeper and Roebert. But the reason - the good reason
- for compiling these lists is that it gives us a chance to contemplate
the state of the art as it has manifested over the past year. By taking
stock, and comparing what has been done, we can get a richer sense of
what's vital, important, innovative, stimulating, or fun, than we do reviewing
each film separately.
indisputable choices for me this year. I could have flipped a coin and
had my #2 switch places with my #1, and the same with my #s 4 and 3. In
fact, there's something a bit unreal about ranking, and I can understand
why some prefer to present lists in alphabetical or "no particular" order.
But I rank films because I like the mental process of sifting for diamonds.
As always, my precondition was that a film had to be no more than three
years old, and that it played on a big screen in my burg during the previous
year and up through January of the current year (to allow for end-of-year
Oscar lag.) Unfortunately that means that Richard Kelly's brilliant Donnie
Darko didn't make the cut, because somebody (Fox, I
guess) didn't deem it good enough to send to screens in my town. Otherwise
it would have made my top 10, probably in the 7th spot. Anyway, please
go rent it now and watch it if you haven't already.
Ciénaga (Lucrecia Martel).
So different, so strangely compelling, yet dreamlike in its rhythms and
sounds, the life of a troubled, chaotic extended family in a rundown summer
home in rural Argentina is revealed as if the viewer just woke up in the
midst of it, unspoken thoughts and desires almost palpable in the careless
movements of children and teenagers running through the house or drifting
through the stifling emotional landscape, running up against the stubborn
opacity of the apathetic or despairing or drunk adults, reflected like
shadows against the tensions of Indian servitude, social and political
decadence, and the poor remnants of myth glimpsed as sightings of the
Virgin Mary, and all of it going together like this run-on sentence. Nothing
more bold in film this year, and by a first time writer-director. La
Ciénaga possesses a calm poetic eye, and presents the turbulence
and sadness of its microcosm with complete gravity and conscious intent.
It is about the state of "not caring" that leaves us unmoored, and about
the result we see around us - the innocent falling through the cracks,
sinking into "the swamp."
2. The Pianist (Roman Polanski).
An old master who knows of what he speaks, Polanski depicts the gradual
murder of a people, and the desperate survival of a man, with unrivalled
vividness. To say that this brilliant, extraordinary work is the best
non-documentary Holocaust film ever made is to praise it as it should
be praised, but this still doesn't convey the power with which Polanski
makes you feel it all happening as if you were there. Adrien Brody shows
great sensitivity and range as the pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman - we see
him descend from dedicated young artiste to shivering, starving wreck,
but the truth of music never leaves him. This is a classical work in every
sense - it has the honesty and fearlessness of inspired art; there's no
compromise or softening of what happened; no cheap cynicism either. We
are allowed to journey to the depths of affliction, and emerge on the
Out (Laurent Cantet).
A spooky little tone poem about work - how what we do for a living comes
to define who we are, not only in our own eyes, but in every eye we meet.
Our hero (in a subtle, disturbing performance from Aurélien Recoing)
has lost his job, but pretends to his family that he has a new one, across
the border in Switzerland. The elaborate ruse, doomed to eventual futility,
takes him to some strange inner places. Cantet has a flair for the antiseptic
style of office buildings, hotel lobbies, and apartment complexes, and
the picture is weirdly funny and terribly sad at the same time. But what
really sets Time Out apart is its finish. As you watch, you may
think you understand what the film is saying. Then, suddenly, the final
scene illuminates everything with quiet, devastating clarity.
Fast Runner (Zacharias Kunuk).
The first Inuit language feature film, beautifully shot in widescreen
digital, succeeds in evoking both the primal quality of myth and the oddly
matter-of-fact style of folktale, resulting in an impression of huge space
(the eye always opening out in awe to the horizon, then pulled back into
close-ups on the faces) and an eternal Now of time (immersing the viewer
in the ever-repeating cycles of Inuit life). The traditional story, about
two brothers and their deadly enemy whose betrothed chooses to go with
one of the brothers, is raw - ancestral curses, murder, infidelity, desperate
flight, revenge, expiation - and the technique urgent, dynamic. The ever-moving
camera captures one jaw-dropping image after another. Then the myth enlarges
and becomes, unexpectedly, the foundation of a ceremony and a path to
a higher purpose.
Sunday (Paul Greengrass).
This stunning recreation of the 1972 massacre in Derry, Northern Ireland,
combines fictional elements (actors, dialogue, etc.) with documentary
style (handheld camera, an experiential rather than dramatic mood) to
attain both immediacy and political impact. The film shifts back and forth
between the people of Derry preparing for their march, and the British
officers and soldiers behind barricades, with fragmentary scenes punctuated
with blackouts, the tension rising to a terrifying climax. James Nesbitt
is excellent as the organizer of the nonviolent civil rights demonstration
that becomes an excuse for the British army to flex its muscles, and the
picture makes you feel what it must be like to have your world spin horribly
out of control. Bloody Sunday honors the truth about a state-sponsored
crime, and inspires anguish and outrage. As it should.
From Heaven (Todd Haynes).
A consciously subversive use of 1950s "women's picture" style as a cracked
looking glass for the American mass social, sexual, and racial delusion.
The picture's seductive beauty is like a poisoned apple - in brief sudden
moments the luscious surface breaks open to reveal pure viciousness and
hatred as the hidden glue of the film's storybook society, only to close
quickly again as we return to the romantic form. The exaggeration of style
is everything here - it's not meant to be realism, but a sort of spiritual
warfare with symbolic images from the age of Ike as weapons. What a lot
of people don't seem to get is that this is a stark, angry film. The soft
vulnerability of the housewife (Julianne Moore captures the acting style
- the fragile feminine screen persona - perfectly) embodies the tragic
dream that Haynes wants to shake us out of.
7. Rabbit-Proof Fence (Phillip Noyce).
This film tells the true story of three "half-caste" aboriginal girls
who escaped in 1931 from a state-run "school" where they had been taken
after being kidnapped from their families in order to be adopted by white
families as part of the Australian government's racial eugenics program.
We come to understand some of the history and thinking behind this policy
through the character of an official played by Kenneth Branagh, but the
film wisely focuses on the courage and determination of the girls as its
main story. The young nonprofessional actresses who play them are wonderfully
natural and moving, especially Everlyn Sampi as the oldest girl, whose
admirable fierceness and cunning keeps them one step ahead of their pursuers.
Noyce's approach honors the point of view of these heroines, and the spiritual
beliefs of their people. His film is gorgeous and very stirring.
from the Second Floor (Roy Andersson).
The bleakest, and weirdest, vision of the modern predicament on film that
I've seen in a long time. Songs consists of a series of short,
discrete episodes - usually shot with a stationary camera - taking place
in an unnamed city on the verge of complete social collapse. Roving gangs
beat up strangers; the roads are clogged with a massive traffic jam; a
man tries to get rich selling life-sized crucifixes; a blindfolded girl
is pushed into a pit in some sort of community ritual. Mixing grotesque
humor, despair, ghostly apparitions, and scathing satire, the film portrays
the loss of our humanity in a world without a spiritual dimension. It's
a horror film, with the monsters just pathetic frightened human beings.
Destinées Sentimentales (Olivier Assayas).
Renoir's dictum that "everyone has his reasons" could be the motto for
this richly observant saga covering thirty years in the lives of a man
and woman (Charles Berling and Emmanuelle Béart) in early 20th century
France. There are no heroes or villains, just different ideas of what
matters, which in the end boils down to a choice between ambition and
love. Assayas avoids the grand manner traditional to epic, instead using
close-ups and restless camera movement to make the past seem present,
while deftly sketching a host of characters, along with the Limoges porcelain
business that supports and entraps them. The film shows how time can make
us forget who we are, and the force of our environment determine our path
in life far more than we would care to admit, yet it retains a humane
vision of life and a belief in love as our saving grace.
Going Home (Manoel Oliveira).
In an art form that tends to favor boldness, a film of simplicity and
unassuming wisdom is a rarity. Michel Piccoli plays an aging actor who
loses his wife and children in an accident. Rather than explore the theme
of grief, however, Oliveira uses it as a backround for a meditation on
the ordinariness of life, how this taken-for-granted quotidian intersects
with the human love for drama and performance, and how both of them relate
to an older man's conscious sense of mortality. This sounds heavy, but
the picture's limpid style and wry sense of humor is anything but. Something
of a love letter (or postcard) to Paris, I'm Going Home is also
a showcase for the veteran Piccoli, who is marvelous.
And now for the B-sides:
Lady and the Duke (Eric Rohmer). So beautiful it takes
your breath away. The use of digital matte paintings for the exteriors
is masterfully integrated into the film's overall concept - a magic-lantern
recreation of an 18th century aristocrat's viewpoint on the French revolution.
No, it's not the most broad-minded view of history, but I love the way
it actually creates a state of mind through visual style.
Away (Hayao Miyazaki). A children's movie that recognizes
fright, struggle, bewilderment, sorrow, seriousness, disgust, passion,
weirdness, and adventure, as important elements in great kidlit - instead
of just humor and cuteness. The animation is spectacular, and the film
reminds me of Lewis Carroll. How's that for praise?
Maids (Jean-Pierre Denis). This version of the notorious
Papin case is austere, precise, yet terrific in its portrayal of isolation
and bottled-up rage. Sylvie Testud is strikingly expressive in the role
of the older sister, in whom class resentment and sexual obsession combine
with explosive results. One of those films that's hard to shake - very
14. Late Marriage (Dover Koshashvili). An unmarried
32-year old Israeli man pretends to go along with his controlling family's
search for a bride, while maintaining a relationship with a single-mom
divorcee. The long sex scene is one of the very few I've ever seen that
doesn't feel phony. Remarkably direct and honest, the film portrays the
iron grip of family and patriarchy with a bitter sense of humor.
of New York (Martin Scorsese). Flawed as it is by a
tepid romance, Scorsese's epic still astonishes with its creation of a
huge, vanished world onscreen - American history as one big street fight.
Daniel Day-Lewis dominates in his larger-than-life turn as a charismatic
devil. In the end, the film achieves a brutal magnificence with its depiction
of the 1863 draft riots, a tragic New York apocalypse.
(Steven Soderbergh). A metaphysical prose poem about death, memory, and
the human longing for the eternal - and it played at a multiplex near
you. Arguably the riskiest release by a major studio this year, it's also
one of the more delicately crafted films in recent memory. George Clooney's
work as an anguished shrink doesn't quite hit the mark, but the film's
style is so soulful and finely textured that it put me in an altered state.
My Sister (Catherine Breillat). Breillat is an expert
at challenging unconscious assumptions, and this story of two sisters
- one "pretty" and the other "fat" (even here I'm forced to give voice
to assumptions) is her incisive take on adolescent female sexuality and
the idea of losing one's virginity, especially in regards to how the sisters
think of themselves, and each other. The ending still bothers me, but
Breillat is like strong coffee - she keeps you awake.
My Lips (Jacques Audiard). A fascinating psychological
thriller about a hearing-impaired woman (Emmanuelle Devos) who becomes
enmeshed with an ex-con (Vincent Cassel) and ends up getting involved
in a dangerous heist. Audiard's elliptical style evokes an isolated interior
world, and the two leads are great, especially the intense, ambiguous
19. Alias Betty (Claude Miller). Starting out as
an edgy portrait of a young woman's troubled relationship with her dangerously
unstable mother, the picture takes off into a cleverly plotted, multi-character
suspense film, each thread revealing intriguing themes, a prominent one
being that of children who are trapped in the peculiar and often unhealthy
dramas of adults.
(Nagisa Oshima). A very strange story about a young androgynous
swordsman (Ryuehi Matsuda) in a 19th century training school for samurai,
who becomes an object of obsession for most of the men in the school.
Things aren't what they seem, and the elaborate social masks could lead
you to draw the wrong conclusions about Oshima's intent if you're not
paying close enough attention. But there's nothing ambiguous about the
visual style - this is a film of extravagant beauty, with a majestic spatial
sense and haunting atmosphere.