Wednesday, August 22, 2007
2006 in Review: Numero Uno
At the end of every calendar year, I have a tradition of re-watching the best film I saw that past year. But when New Year's Eve rolled around, I got a little anxious because I didn't have a real masterpiece from 2006 to help me ring in the New Year. So I decided to head over to the local discount theatre and re-watch The Prestige, a movie that I originally found entertaining and intriguing, and about which I had a strange feeling that maybe I'd missed something the first time around. Lo and behold, sitting there in the theatre, I was enthralled, and I finally saw The Prestige for the masterpiece it is. Somehow, my annual tradition had worked itself out after all.
The Prestige is the rare film that demands to be watched more than once. On the first viewing, I responded to the style of the film- it's a first-class entertainment- as well as the cleverness of the plot and how it manifested itself. But it took a second viewing for me to really appreciate what director Christopher Nolan was really up to here. Nolan, who with his brother Jonathan adopted a novel by Christopher Priest, has with Memento and now The Prestige become the reigning king of intelligent, twisty thrillers that are thematically deep instead of merely clever. It's this depth that makes his films fascinating for viewing after viewing even after we know where the story is going. There are so many intriguing levels to The Prestige- the single-minded obsessiveness its magician protagonists have toward their chosen art, the blurred line between science and magic, even the metaphysical implications of the various incarnations of "The Man in the Box." Nolan works magic of his own, balancing the heavy stuff with a heavy dose of showmanship, while guiding a sterling cast that includes Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Rebecca Hall, and David Bowie. To me, The Prestige is half Angier, half Borden, and all masterpiece.
So now that I'd found a film to occupy the top spot on my list, what could possibly complement it? You may think it's easy pairing two movies together like this, but to me it's like choosing a wine to go with a meal- pick the wrong one and the meal loses much of its luster. I toyed with the idea of placing Jean-Pierre Melville's finally-released Resistance epic Army of Shadows, as well as Don Hertzfeldt's latest animated marvel, Everything Will Be OK. However, in my ongoing effort to keep my readership- hey there folks!- abreast of the sometimes strange and esoteric offerings outside the eye of the American distribution system, I soon settled on the as-yet-undistributed Interkosmos.
The first feature by Chicago-based video artist Jim Finn, Interkosmos could easily be pitched as "The Max Fischer Players in space." And to be sure, Finn feels like something of a kindred spirit to Wes Anderson. But don't let that discourage you, Steve- Finn is a uniquely gifted filmmaker in his own right. Interkosmos is a faux documentary about an apocryphal, ill-fated deep space mission undertaken by an alliance of Eastern bloc nations during the heyday of the Cold War to establish a storehouse of Communist knowledge on one of the moons of Jupiter (got that?). It's an ambitious project for any first feature, especially given the film's minute budget, and its short running time of 71 minutes. But Finn is a talent to be reckoned with, exploring the minutiae of the mission in detail while infusing it with his own offbeat brand of humor. Some of the film's best moments are tangential to the plot- an impromptu production number during a field hockey game, or a salute to that great Communist pet, the guinea pig. But at the center of the film is a love story involving two crew members who to their dismay are traveling on separate ships. Whether we're watching them carry on a silent flirtation at a party or debating the merits of that capitalist anthem "The Trolley Song" over their radios, their love feels completely tangible, and is all the more moving for being so understated. In a way, Interkosmos is a spiritual cousin to The Prestige, as both films deal with brilliant characters who are willing to sacrifice everything for their calling. On top of that, they're both exceedingly entertaining. And who could ask for more than that?