TWILIGHT OF THE SNOBS

Dashiell's favorites of 2002

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.

No 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.

1. La 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 other side.

3. Time 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.

4. The 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.

5. Bloody 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.

6. Far 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.

8. Songs 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.

9. Les 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.

10. I'm 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:

11. The 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.
12. Spirited 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?
13. Murderous 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 scary.
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.
15. Gangs 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.
16. Solaris (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.
17. For 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.
18. Read 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 Devos.
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.
20. Taboo (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.

Other performances I admired:

Jack Nicholson (About Schmidt)
Catherine Keener (Lovely & Amazing)
Viola Davis (Solaris)
Nicolas Cage (Adaptation)
Dominique Reymond (Les Destinées)
Maggie Smith (Gosford Park)
Edie Falco (Sunshine State)
Naseeruddin Shah (Monsoon Wedding)
Martina Gedeck (Mostly Martha)
Billy Bob Thornton & Halle Berry (Monster's Ball)
Andy Serkis, with help from the CGI guys
(The Two Towers)

Catherine Keener

Naseeruddin Shah

Documentary: Life and Debt (Stephanie Black).
The best film so far about globalization.

Cinematography:
Steven Soderbergh (Solaris)
Honorable mentions:
Toyomichi Kurita (Taboo)
Edward Lachman (Far From Heaven)

Music: Elmer Bernstein (Far From Heaven)
Honorable mention: Peter Gabriel (Rabbit-Proof Fence)

Production design: Gangs of New York

Okay, but way overrated: Y Tu Mamá También

Ho-hum Award: Catch Me If You Can

Interesting failure award: Punch-Drunk Love
It feels like I'm the only critic on the planet who was underwhelmed by this one. I'm a fan of P.T. Anderson, and I like the way he goes out on a limb with visual and aural inventiveness, but Adam Sandler didn't register anything for me except cipherhood, and the script seems underwritten. Well, like I said, interesting....

Just a thought: I wish Harvey Weinstein were an elected official, so we could impeach him.

And farewell to: Chuck Jones, Rod Steiger, Ted Demme, Peggy Lee, Harold Russell, Hildegard Knef, Milton Berle, Irene Worth, Lawrence Tierney, Spike Milligan, Signe Hasso, Dudley Moore, Ward Kimball, John Agar, Rosemary Clooney, Bill Peet, Dean Riesner, Lionel Hampton, Katy Jurado, John Frankenheimer, Leo McKern, Jeff Corey, Kim Hunter, Cliff Gorman, John Thaw, James Gregory, Katrin Cartlidge, Adolph Green, Richard Harris, Eddie Bracken, Tex Henson, James Coburn, George Roy Hill, Richard Crenna, Kinji Fukasaku, Conrad L. Hall, and Billy Wilder.

©2003 Chris Dashiell
CineScene