|Top Tens : |
-Introduction: Ten Bests
-Lightning Over Water
in new york
| || |
| || |
| || || |
Probably seen by more people last year than all of the other films on this list combined, this inescapable ad for a barely-glimpsed VW Beetle Convertible played before almost every feature film in NYC for weeks and blew most of them off the screen before they even started. Compressing unknown months in the life of twenty-something office drone Bill Briggs of cubicle 1415B into thirty triple-distilled seconds, it managed to say at least as much about urban loneliness, boredom, and repetition as P.T. Anderson or Tsai Ming-liang's recent work, and did it all to the bouncy rhythm of a forgotten Electric Light Orchestra tune. No other film I can think of so succinctly conveys the experience of weeks smearing together in a haze of monotony and public isolation, of shuttling between an Ikea® apartment and an Ikea® job, in which the only marker distinguishing one day from the next is a different tie. Mike Mills (who is currently working on his first feature) accomplishes this with some of the most precisely framed matched jump cuts-which stretch a single stride down a cubicle corridor into countless days-since Buster Keaton leaped from film to film in Sherlock, Jr., and draws maximum effect from the often abused split-screen. Impossible Love Story of the year: Bill's exchange of forlorn glances with the attractive redhead in a neighboring building. As the song "Mr. Blue Sky" rises to a heavenly chorus at the end, we can feel the immanence, some divine intervention (to be delivered by the car, of course) that promises to remove Brother Bill to a higher plane of German engineering. Pray for a sequel.
2./3. Minority Report/Catch Me If You Can
It would take a stubborn and willful act of denial at this point not to acknowledge that Spielberg is on some kind of a roll; he hasn't made three films (A.I. being barely 18 months old) this good this fast-ever. It's becoming clear that at least part of the reason for this sudden surge of creativity has to do with Kubrick's death, which must have affected him as deeply as one of his own character's father-figure obsessions. Aside from cramming his recent films with as many allusions to and imitations of Kubrick's work as they will hold, he seems determined to work as hard, and as quickly, as Frank Abagnale, Jr. to "win it all back" for the old man, and the task is just as impossible and fascinating to watch. If 2001's A.I.: Artificial Intelligence was his father-son picnic with Stanley K. (as well as a speculation on the future of humanity almost as monumental as 2001 itself), Minority Report is quite obviously his take on A Clockwork Orange's dystopian social criticism. Following proper chronology, that would make Catch Me If You Can Spielberg's Barry Lyndon, which isn't as farfetched as it sounds: both chronicle the rise and fall of a historically situated, marginally intelligent pretty boy as he gambles and blunders his way into and out of great fortune, managing to lose the only thing he ever sincerely cared about (Barry's son, Frank's father) while working to save it. Like Barry Lyndon, Catch Me is also cheerfully and uncharacteristically ribald for its maker, and accordingly not without a certain strain of misogyny that mars the work of both artists. But no filmmaker alive is as attuned to the basic conflicts and paradoxes of American life, past and present, as Steven Spielberg, and there ought to be more critics than the indispensable Armond White saying so.
4. Trouble Every Day
I took a date to this movie after she told me she had loved Ginger Snaps. We haven't seen each other since. No, it really wasn't as gory as early reports led us to believe (thanks to which we are lucky to have seen it in the U.S. at all); extremely discomforting and queasy is about as far as it goes, which is better anyway. Denis is too elliptical a storyteller to ever create the tense immediacy required for a proper horror film, which I'm glad this wasn't. Likewise, the supposedly audacious metaphor in which sex equals cannibalism equals vampirism or something doesn't really hold up as anything other than a provocative, empty gesture-it doesn't disturb as much as it surely was intended to and doesn't linger in the mind. What lingers are cinematographer Agnès Godard's gorgeous images of the human body in various states of agony and ecstasy (often simultaneously), and Denis's druggy, hypnotic rhythms suited perfectly to the Tindersticks soundtrack. (Like a good score is supposed to, it conjures up a flood of images every time I put it in my CD player). It's the accumulation of unforgettable poetic incidentals that make this perhaps Denis's best: the slow-motion shimmer of the Seine at sunset, a green scarf carried away by the wind, a drop of blood trickling down a shower curtain…but as another great director once said, "That's not blood, that's red."
| || || |
5. Safe Conduct
Another great film from one of France's most dependable, intelligent, and relevant (did anyone see It All Starts Today?) perennials breezes through town on a two-week pass and no one notices. At least this one had the distinction of slipping unheralded through the New York Film Festival first, where it was one of only two French films screened and practically came to stand in for the French Tradition of Quality which forms part of its subject. In France it at least benefited from the interest of a little controversy, but since the controversy didn't involve representations of sex or violence, only trivialities like history, politics, and film criticism, it didn't carry over to the US reception at all, where the film was greeted with barely a smile and a nod and then forgotten. But for those lucky enough to have seen it, this was easily one of the richest, most purely entertaining films of the year; by turns hilarious, harrowing, and lyrical, without softening the impact of the history lesson. You come away from Safe Conduct with a desire to see more French films of the Occupation period (word has it a restoration of Clouzot's Le Corbeau is in the works right now), read up on the real people and debates involved, and then revisit the film armed with a new perspective. What more can we ask of an historical film? If nothing else, this should be a reminder to cinephiles and historians that, with more disposable Film Studies titles being published than ever before, André Bazin's French Cinema of the Occupation and Resistance is out of print in English and needs to be brought back.
6. Russian Ark
My friend and Russian film scholar Sergei has referred to the previous work of Sokoruv as "political pornography" and his overall artistic project as "necrophilic." There's certainly the sensation of tomb-raiding here to justify the latter, though to judge from his title I assume Sokoruv would label the same thing an act of preservation. I can't claim enough knowledge of pre-Revoluionary Russia to say anything about the film's historical project, but there's no denying the elitist cinephilic pleasure of its aesthetic. In fact, for the first time I'm aware of, a radical aesthetic was actually used to promote a commercial film, which indicates that the publicity department at Wellspring really knew its audience or was just really desperate. One could easily write a paper on the "grand ballroom scene" starting with Lubitsch, moving through Welles and Visconti, up to this film and Les Destinées, as both the ultimate cinematic symbol of decadent bourgeois/aristocratic culture on the wane and the ultimate chance for directors with similar inclinations to flaunt their technique. Whether this will prove to be a miraculous one-off or the first of its kind remains to be seen. (Personally, I think a rollerskating Steadicam shot traversing the downhill spiral of the Guggenheim might be fun.) "Dream-like" is a description that gets tossed around in film criticism, but this is the only film that has ever made me pinch myself to be certain I was awake.
7. The Pianist
Three critical commonplaces have instantly grown up around this film, which is worthy of every bit of praise it receives but which deserves it as honestly and unsentimentally as the film tells its story. 1) I'm getting a little sick of hearing that Roman Polanski is back-he was never gone, as far as I'm concerned, and since his untimely relocation has been mixing sturdy genre exercises of the kind that few people can do properly these days with more personal projects - which come to think of it is what he always did. Polanski is one of the few remaining links we have to the high classical tradition of Lang, Welles, and Kubrick, which is an exile/émigré tradition as much as an aesthetic one, which is reason enough to value everything he does. 2) I'm also tired of people treating this as if it were Polanski's autobiography and not someone else's; it's lazy, automatic, and shortchanges both Polanski and Wladyslaw Szpilman. Polanski chose to write his autobiography (1984's Roman by Polanski) and turned down Schindler's List because it was set in his native Krakow. Polanski's life in Poland during the war obviously informs every frame of The Pianist, but the film of his childhood that people seem to think this is will never, can never, be made. 3) "The film Polanski has been waiting his whole life to make." On a certain literal level this must be true, but it implies that Polanski hasn't been imagining his autobiography in his films throughout his whole career. All those stolen mothers, murderous covens, perverted artists-were they just fun and games? Rosemary already looked like a starving refugee from the camps in 1968. As for the film itself, I've barely begun to digest its achievements, but what I admire most after only two viewings is Polanski's systematic use of windows to distance the viewer while simultaneously creating a subjective point of view. This is a story about a man who literally watched his world being destroyed from the other side of a pane of glass a few stories up, while hanging out in empty apartments trying to keep quiet.
| || || |
8. Punch-Drunk Love
A textbook example of a movie that should have brought two disparate audiences together and wound up driving them both away. The Onion summed this misfortune up perfectly: "Adam Sandler fans alienated by sensitive, nuanced performance." Except that it wasn't, really. (More honest would be "Adam Sandler's insecure fans displeased to see him humiliated for a change.") Though it was less cynical a casting choice than it first appeared, in retrospect it's easy to see why Anderson thought Sandler's adolescent rage appropriate for one of his own films. He loves to watch nervous actors explode, the more the better-it's about all he is able to do with them. Luckily his strength as a visual artist continues to grow: a shot of three panels of shattered sliding-glass door forms an ironic triptych (with Sandler's portrait peeking out from one side), while the visual jokes involving prefabricated box-architecture are almost worthy of Tati-ville. Unfortunately I don't think Anderson is genuinely interested in his now-trademark magical realism as anything more than an excuse for some eye-popping effects. But at least until Robert Altman or Alan Rudolph decide to go back there, he is the only film poet of Los Angeles.
9. The Son
Having endured the seasick extremes of von Trier's and Rosetta's handheld camera work from the front row without recourse to Dramamine, I was surprised to find myself feeling tense and nauseous in the first half-hour of this nerve-jangler before I even understood what the hell was going on. Only later did I realize that that the brothers Dardenne had me emotionally identifying with the main character's personal, ethical, and spiritual crisis before I knew it existed. While they may superficially appear the same, the camera in Rosetta was an athletic stalker, sprinting to keep up with a girl who had more important things to worry about than staying in the shot. The Son moves beyond this faux-documentary immediacy to a truly Bressonian fixation on the non-expressive parts of the body (in this case the back of the neck, the rear corner of the cheek). Also as with Bresson, the narrative is without a single second of flab: the first frame of the first shot introduces the entire drama and the film ends the moment its eventual resolution becomes certain, if not actually resolved. But by the time Olivier Gourmet unexpectedly utters the words we had been anxiously waiting to hear for the most of the film ("The boy you killed was my son"), we realize that the film has been moving ahead of itself so quickly that they hardly even matter anymore.
10. About Schmidt
This film's tagline could have been the inverse of Easy Rider's: A man went looking for America and found it everywhere! I was totally at a loss over the critical acclaim for Payne's previous Election, but I'm willing to give it another look after this unexpectedly sincere yet satirical comedy of Middle-American Manners. This is the kind of film that winds up revealing as much about an audience's prejudices as its makers; whether you find it to be merely a hilarious hoot at the expense of Midwesterners or something richer and more complex probably depends on whether or not you've lived anyplace other than New York City. For me, the film is most effective in its small moments of observation: Dermot Mulroney holding an automatically rewinding camera up to his ear; or a scene of Jack Nicholson ordering in a Dairy Queen that is so dead-on it might as well be hidden-camera documentary reality. It's also unbearably funny and even sad, which tells me that Payne is onto something basic about everyday life in America which eludes most others and that I hope he'll continue to pursue. He certainly understands the emptiness that comes from defining your whole life by a job that doesn't define you, and the greater emptiness that remains when even that is taken away. More people than would be willing to admit to it probably see their own father in Schmidt.