Tuesday, January 24, 2006

2005 in review (a half-hearted grab for your renewed affection)

So I'm back. Now that I've finished my grad school applications and taken care of work- and family-related holiday concerns, I can devote more time to you, my adoring fans. And what better way to rekindle the love than by summing up the past year in cinema (don't answer that)? Much of this was taken from a piece I wrote for the Cleveland Cinematheque as part of their best-of-05 poll, although there have been some changes since the 'Theque's due date of New Year's Eve (notably my #1). I still want to write a bit about other films besides these, but this is a start, anyway.

Best New Releases:

I've only seen the shortened wide-release version, so I can't say what has been edited out of the previous cut. All I know is that the film I saw was just about perfect. As I've grown to expect from Malick, the film is so visually gorgeous it's like having your eyes kiss by a woman with pillowy-soft lips, but that alone can't justify its presence here. What makes THE NEW WORLD a masterpiece is how it enables the audience to gaze through the eyes of its protagonists- first John Smith (Colin Farrell), then the unnamed Pocahontas (Q’Orianka Kilcher)- so that we see both of the film’s New Worlds as if for the first time. Kilcher’s performance feels so natural and affectless that I almost hope she never does another film, lest the illusion of the performance be ruined, and the spell be broken.

The most significant cinematic discovery I made this past year was the work of French filmmaker Arnaud Desplechin, and my favorite Desplechin film thusfar is his latest, KINGS AND QUEEN, in which two lives are examined and contrasted. Nora (the exquisite Emmanuelle Devos) puts on the guise of a strong mother as a reaction to the long history of tragedy in her life, whereas Ismael (Matthieu Amalric) is a perpetually kvetching musician who finds himself committed to a mental hospital. Nora’s story plays out as a dark chamber drama, as she deals with her father’s impending death by fixating on the idea that she will die too, and must find a way to provide for her young son after she is gone; meanwhile, Ismael’s story has an air of oddball comedy, particularly during his misadventures in the institution. Desplechin is a fearless filmmaker, uncowed by wild tonal shifts (a harrowing scene involving Nora’s father’s illness might be followed by Ismael doing an impromptu hip-hop dance) or unexpected stylistic quirks (dig the theatrical nature of Nora’s flashback to her first husband’s death). One of the film’s (relatively few) detractors once sarcastically described it as being "chock full of fruity goodness," and I suppose that’s one of the primary reasons I love it.

Werner Herzog has made a career out of finding characters on the fringe of society, and Timothy Treadwell is one of his great discoveries- a self-styled adventurer who fancied himself the protector of grizzly bears, and who journeyed to Alaska every summer for over a decade to live among them until he was mauled to death by one. Combining copious amounts of found footage shot by Treadwell himself (in which Treadwell is nothing if not a shameless self-promoter) with interviews of Treadwell’s friends, Herzog paints a vivid portrait of his subject. But what makes the film great is Herzog’s presence, offering his own perspective on the events and even disagreeing with Treadwell’s beliefs. It’s Herzog himself that keeps the film from becoming simply a tribute to a unique kindred spirit, and instead turns it into a parable about the need for proper respect for the natural order.

In which two young men, a soldier and a townie, fall in love, after which the townie disappears into the forest and turns into a shape-shifting shaman who terrorizes small communities in the form of a tiger. Got that? The story itself matters little to the effect of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s latest, a strange but somehow romantic film filled with some of the most unique visuals I’ve seen all year. The sweetness of the romance in the film’s first half gives way to something much more primal, as the soldier hunts down the tiger/lover in the woods, and is faced with a decision to kill the tiger and "release his soul, or be consumed and become a part of him forever." In a way, isn’t that what true love is about?

The opening passages of David Cronenberg’s chilling film have a fascination much like FAR FROM HEAVEN did, of an idealized small-town life that feels too good to be true. And sure enough, it is, as family diners and varsity-jacketed school bullies give way to more sinister threats when Tom Stall (played cannily by Viggo Mortensen) quickly dispatches with some out-of-town stickup men. From there, Tom descends into the abyss of his past, as some gangsters show up claiming to know his true, violent identity. In the end, is he Tom Stall or Crazy Joey Cusack from Philly? Or is he both? The film’s most tantalizing mystery is that, even when the film is over, it’s impossible to separate the two.

6. 2046
Eye candy. Wong Kar-wai’s follow-up/quasi-sequel to IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE plays like nothing so much as variations on a theme, as Tony Leung copes with having lost Maggie Cheung in the previous film. In pure Vonnegut fashion, the story becomes unstuck in time, jumping into a future world of Leung’s creation and then getting borne back ceaselessly into the past as he remembers those women he has loved. And what women! Gong Li, Faye Wong, Zhang Ziyi (playing a grown-up for a change) and a few fleeting glimpses of Maggie Cheung, to tease us, I suppose. What is 2046? What does it mean? I look forward to watching the film again and again to figure it out.

So few filmmakers anymore are capable of creating spectacle that Peter Jackson has to be commended just for thinking big, but that’s just one of the many reasons why KONG is the rare remake that does the original justice. Much like Tarantino did with grindhouse movies in KILL BILL, Jackson distills all the Kong-fueled flights of fantasy he’s had since he first saw the 1933 classic into one souped-up package, combining state of the art effects and classical Hollywood storytelling. But Jackson’s masterstroke is his conception of Kong himself, and his relationship with Naomi Watts’ Anne Darrow, a relationship built on mutual understanding, protection, and a most curious kind of love.

The phrase "good small film" so often comes off as qualified praise, as if a movie can’t compete with the epics just because it doesn’t contain a cast of thousands and millions of dollars worth of effects. But TONY TAKITANI is a great small film in the best sense- like an absorbing short story (the film is based on one by Hakuri Murakami), director Jun Ichikawa traffics in muted emotions and snapshots of a character’s life. Star Issei Ogata makes an perfect Takitani, his almost cartoonishly withdrawn presence ideally suited to the character’s tentativeness, and Ryuichi Sakamoto’s plaintive score is the year’s best.

The best performance I saw all year was given by Damian Lewis in Lodge Kerrigan’s film. Lewis plays the title character, a schizophrenic searching for his long-lost daughter, and Kerrigan follows him as he searches, wanders, and suffers through the highs and lows of his illness. As the film progresses, we begin to see through Keane’s eyes, and when he becomes a friend to a down-on-her-luck woman and her young daughter, the film generates suspense from Keane’s struggle to stay sane in their presence.

Steven Gaghan’s tapestry of oil-industry corruption is the year’s best overtly-political film, painting the issues surrounding its subject as a vicious circle of greed, subterfuge, and violence. SYRIANA contains memorable performances from everyone from the henceforth little-known Alexander Siddig to de-glammed superstar George Clooney, but the real star is Gaghan, who is unafraid to tackle the thornier aspects of the topic, to turn to didactic speechifying when it’s necessary to make his point, and who manages to juggle the various plot strands in a way that always keeps the audience aware of where they stand.

With theatrical exhibition getting more competitive (and expensive), three of the year’s best films, from three masters of the medium, mostly bypassed theatres entirely, although I had the good fortune to see two of them on the big screen. NOT ON THE LIPS is a charming adaptation of a 1920s operetta from Alain Resnais; MARIE AND JULIEN is director Jacques Rivette’s haunting yet erotic love story with a supernatural bent; and NO DIRECTION HOME is a made-for-PBS tribute to one of the past century’s most iconic artist, as made by another (Martin Scorsese). It’s a double-edged sword: while I’m sad that more people can’t see films like this on the big screen (especially when theatres are crowded by the likes of CHICKEN LITTLE), I’m grateful that DVD allows American audiences to see them at all.

Honorable mention: THE 40 YEAR OLD VIRGIN (Judd Apatow), DOWNFALL (Oliver Hirschbiegel), GAMES OF LOVE AND CHANCE (Abdellatif Kechiche), KUNG FU HUSTLE (Stephen Chow), MATCH POINT (Woody Allen), NOBODY KNOWS (Hirokazu Kore-eda), OLDBOY (Chan-wook Park)

Robert Rodriguez, drunk on DIY movie-making, has made a film based on a story by his 8 year old son. This tells me that, as a director, Rodriguez is a cool dad. The resultant movie, a semi-coherent mush of bargain-basement effects and mugging kids, would be hard enough to watch, but add low-quality 3D presentation and it’s murder on the eyes. 3D was once advertised with the phrase "it puts you in the movie;" Rodriguez hurt my eyes to the point where I could swear he put me in the most infamous shot in UN CHIEN ANDALOU.

Best Trend in Filmmaking: "The Resurgence of Low-Cult":
I’m as much of a art-film nerd as the next guy, but sometimes even I get an itch that can only be scratched by a down’n’dirty genre movie. Luckily, after several years of glossy, shallow "entertainment," 2005 was a banner year for "disreputable" cinema. Some highlights were (in rough preferential order): THE 40 YEAR OLD VIRGIN (the funniest and best sex comedy since, well, ever), KUNG FU HUSTLE (a hilarious Tex Avery-styled chopsocky romp), OLDBOY (about the ugliness of vengeance, with a great performance by Choi Min-sik), THE DEVIL’S REJECTS (Rob Zombie’s thrilling take on grindhouse may out-geek even Tarantino), KISS KISS BANG BANG (an uproarious riff in detective movies- welcome back Shane Black), LAND OF THE DEAD (ditto George A. Romero), DOMINO (see below), and UNLEASHED (S&M meets Jet Li, with Luc Besson’s patented makeshift family dynamic thrown in for good measure).

Most Underrated: DOMINO
Few films released this past year were reviewed so negatively, with critics focused on Tony Scott’s jackhammer editing, the endlessly convoluted storyline, and the level of violence. I’ve never been a big Tony Scott fan, and while it seems to be that those naysaying critics could be describing just about anything he’s directed lately, it’s precisely those things that made the film work as well as it did for me. Domino Harvey (played with great gusto by Keira Knightley) is a Scott character for the ages- a sexy rich girl who yearns to escape her life of privilege by embracing the gritty life of a bounty hunter, and complaints that Knightley isn’t convincing as a bounty hunter are beside the point- the fact that Knightley weighs about one-hundred-and-nothin’ pounds just underline the disconnect between the character’s two lives. Richard Kelly’s screenplay is convoluted, yes, but there is more to the film than one would expect. DOMINO is a meditation (what an odd word to associate with Tony Scott) on social stratification in America today, in which impoverished minorities, violent criminals, the Mafia, and television bigwigs all have to converge sometime, and in DOMINO, it’s at the DMV. The year’s most unexpected great supporting performance has to be given by Mo’Nique, who plays "the world’s youngest grandmother" (her Jerry Springer appearance is a hoot) but also finds unexpected reservoirs of feeling and poignancy amidst the twisting and turning of the story.

Most Overrated: CRASH
Many critics found screenwriter Paul Haggis’ directing debut to contain trenchant observations about race relations in America, but to be honest I mostly found contrivance and writerly self-congratulation. With all the diatribes and hand-wringing CRASH felt more like a writer’s exercise than a fully-realized film. I was a little annoyed that Haggis’ conception of the story seemed to be predicated on the idea that there were roughly a dozen people in Los Angeles, but I could have forgiven this if only he really explored his themes rather than paying them lip service (in short: all races maintain preconceived notions about other races, except for Latinos, who are saints. Thanks for that, Paul). Yes, some of the performances are good, especially Matt Dillon, Thandie Newton, and Terrence Howard. But that doesn’t make up for the handful scenes that were so misguided I wanted to throw something at the screen. CRASH may have been anointed as an "important" film by a media hungry for relevance in pop culture, but that doesn’t mean it’s good.

Best DVD release: RAN (Criterion Collection)
Finally, someone got it right. Kurosawa’s last true masterpiece looks better than ever on the jam-packed Criterion release, and the extras do the film justice. The filet of the set is Chris Marker’s documentary A.K., but the featurette that shows the master’s painting and sketches for the film is a treat as well. Other contenders: KING KONG, NAKED, Lucas Belvaux’s THE TRILOGY.

Best Retrospectives and Re-issues:

1. Orson Welles retro (Cinematheque)
I wasn’t able to make it to the first half the series, but most of the unearthed treasures were in the second half anyway. How many other chances will I have to see, say, THE IMMORTAL STORY or FILMING OTHELLO in my lifetime? And the program of rarities featuring Gary Graver was the capper- Japanese whisky commercials, TV appearances such as "The Fountain of Youth" and "I Love Lucy," even a recipe for an alcoholic beverage invented by Welles himself. And the opportunity to see footage from THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND, with the tantalizing possibility that the whole enchilada might soon see the light of day? Priceless.

2. Maurice Pialat retro (touring)
Pialat never got a lot of attention in the U.S. until after his death, but this retrospective of his work revealed that he was a major filmmaker throughout his career. I wasn’t able to drive up to Cleveland for A HOUSE IN THE WOODS, but I did make it to the rest, and my favorite of the bunch was UNDER THE SUN OF SATAN, a sober but vital examination of faith that deserves comparison with Bresson.

3. Jacques Demy films (Wexner Center)
As my friend Chris said, "the more I see of his work, the more canonical he becomes." This year the Wex showed three of his films, two of which I’d never seen before. The 1969 film MODEL SHOP was Demy’s sole American effort, the final installment of the trilogy that included LOLA and THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG. Lola is a low-key sort-of romance set in Los Angeles, a full 180-degree turn from the fairy-tale world of DONKEY SKIN, his Cocteau-inflected odd fantasy starring Catherine Deneuve, Delphine Seyrig and Jean Marais (to drive the Cocteau comparison home). And I would be remiss if I didn’t at least mention the wonderful opportunity I got to see the classic UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG on the big screen again.

4. Morgan Fisher program (Wexner Center)
In my continual effort to educate myself in all aspects of the cinema, I was thrilled to attend a program of avant-garde shorts from a legend in the field. Fisher’s work deals with aspects of filmmaking and exhibition that are often locked behind closed doors, never more explicitly than in his short PROJECTION INSTRUCTIONS, in which a series of directions are displayed on the screen for the projectionist to follow. Also noteworthy was his early film PRODUCTION STILLS, a witty short about the making of itself, and his latest film ( ), in which Fisher spotlights the craft of insert shots by editing together a film entirely out of inserts from old movies. The best of the program, however, was STANDARD GAUGE, ostensibly about aspect ratios, but also embracing such phenomena as "China Girls," low-budget movies, and the demise of the three-strip Technicolor imbibition process.

5. BLUE MOVIE (Views From the Avant Garde)
This year was my first experience with the New York Film Festival and the concurrent Views program, and while the selection in Views was spotty at best, I certainly enjoyed being able to see this long-unseen film by Andy Warhol. The film itself is quintessential Warhol, not so much crafting cinema as allowing it, for better or worse, to happen. The dead spots and indulgences in the film are just another element of Warhol’s style (such as it is), and while I’m not sure how I feel about BLUE MOVIE, I don’t think I’ll forget it anytime soon. The film was introduced by Warhol "superstar" Viva, who proved an endlessly engaging and salty mistress of ceremonies, which certainly made the experience of the film that much more memorable.

Best Festival Films (that may or may not open in 2006): A TALE OF CINEMA, THROUGH THE FOREST, THE WAYWARD CLOUD, and MANDERLAY



Jason_Alley said...

Excellent top 10 dude - good choices all. And you totally hit the nail on the head about "Crash".

Jason_Alley said...

Just a few more thoughts - "Tropical Malady" certainly sounds interesting. I also really wanna see "Keane" - I would have if it had played anywhere nearby.

Good to see "Tony Takitani" on someone's list. It's such a delicate, small film that I think most critics have simply forgotten about it. I loved it, and almost forgot about it myself.

Anyway dude - excellent writing, as always. I can't wait to see "The New World", but am waiting for a good time when I'm not tired or busy.