TOP TEN FILMS SEEN IN THE YEAR 2006

(films not released or shown in Chicago until 2006)

 

 

 

1.)  ARMY OF SHADOWS                         A                     98

(1969 film, not released in USA until 2006)

France  (140 mi)  1969  d:  Jean-Pierre Melville

 

A densely layered, profound, and meticulously paced, perfectly edited epic of the French resistance, much in the intense and measured manner of Bresson’s A MAN ESCAPED, where attention to detail is exceptional, revealing segment after segment of small intimate moments critical in several resistance fighter’s lives, where each decision manifests itself through the enormous consequences of their acts, eventually taking a wearying toll on the participants, always outnumbered, always targeted by the authorities, providing an authentically realistic view of the startling subject matter, facing a moral dilemma every day of having to accomplish the impossible.  Perhaps also a predecessor to the style of the Dardenne brothers, which through its rhythmic display of the smallest detail of daily routine, reveals an outstanding characterization of a larger picture.  This film feels extremely personal, as if the filmmaker has already been there, as each perfectly crafted image carries the weight of those who actually walked in those shoes, a weight that feels devastatingly human.  The film is actually based on a book by Joseph Kessel, who also wrote of the secret peculiar Parisian love lives in Belle de Jour, so his visualization of the material has been beautifully expressed by both Buñuel and now Melville.  The writer and the filmmaker were also both active members in the French resistance, so this is an extremely personalized collaboration. 

 

The film opens with a crane shot offering an extraordinary high overview of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, a superb monument representing all that is French, as German troops methodically march unimpeded down the Champs-Elysees. The story then follows the hidden lives of the French resistance, operating an underground network that distributed information, weapons, manpower, as well as an ever-changing strategy to counteract the effect of the Nazi’s occupation throughout France.  Their strategy worked only so long as they remained anonymous, as once they were detected, they were of no further use to the overall operations, as they drew a police presence wherever they went.  This film examines several people who contributed, as if the revelations of their work could leave with us an imprint of an organization that accomplished so much, yet with devastating impact, as all the participants shown in the film eventually lost their lives, thus the name for the title of the film.  But the film highlights their lives instead of their deaths.  Despite carrying a nagging anxiety that every day they may be captured and interrogated, leading to torture or the firing squad, the film does an excellent job establishing the overall mood of dread and despair which filled their every waking thought, opening with the transport of a prisoner, Lino Ventura, who we follow throughout the film, to a prison camp, to his plans for an escape, but before he could enact them, he is subsequently transported to Gestapo headquarters, where he again maneuvers a dazzling escape with a fellow prisoner, something improvised on the spur of the moment, which reveals an acute mentality of the persons involved, drawing us into their unbelievably intense survivalist mode.  

 

Not since Bertolucci’s THE CONFORMIST has so much psychological internalized anguish transpired while riding in vintage black cars, where much of the film is shot in darkness, traveling country roads in the wee hours of the morning, carrying out their operations under the cover of night as much as possible to avoid detection.  Especially memorable are the silhouetted outline of bare trees against the blue morning sky, or giant puddles around the countryside farmhouses, or the stunning moonlight submarine rendezvous, transporting the operations chief from France to England to visit De Gaulle, where in the middle of an air raid, a man steps inside a doorway where soldiers and their girls are dancing to music in a basement bar, seemingly oblivious to the world outside.  At one moment, as a man is about to face a firing squad, several of these kinds of images appear in his mind.  Once he makes a rather miraculous escape, which brought a few snickers from the audience, as this was truly incredulous, yet what transpires afterwards is thoroughly entrenched in the most demoralizing futility, as the man who was literally seconds from death is re-created, almost from the womb, with his soul so darkly entrenched in his own powerlessness, expressed in an extended period of near total blackness and isolation, yet he has little choice but to carry on, even when he realizes the outcome before it ever happens.  Due to the extreme secrecy of their mission, many resistance fighters die under false names, their sacrifices never known.  Two brothers in the film never discover that they are both in the resistance, and their meeting together is exquisite, one a former gourmet who must now content himself with listening to Beethoven, or so it seems, as he is actually the head of the resistance, while his brother dies anonymously in a Nazi prison.

 

Near the end of the film, there is an overwhelming sense of dread undermining their thoughts.  Despite the best minds and the best of intentions, how can they avoid being broken?  They face an impossible psychological dilemma where they are each so peculiarly isolated and alone, the unique nature of their mission so dangerous, that the likelihood to succeed all but tempts suicide, as in their lives, torture followed by an agonizing death becomes inevitable.  Jonathan Rosenbaum claims it's a unique saga that haunts with echoes of the guilt and defeatism of Holocaust victims.  Without the hindsight of history, not knowing if they would succeed or fail, the sense of despair is everywhere, as there is so little they seem to be able to do to counter the overwhelming wave of superior forces, yet they are driven anyway, despite the knowledge that all around them their fellow resistance fighters are being rounded up and killed, leaving them to deal with nothing less than the impossible, including the killing of their own, sometimes with their bare hands, chilling images that leave the audience emotionally depleted and devastated.  Simone Signoret plays one of the most determined in the movement, and the dilemma she faces, that the organization faces, is simply unthinkable, yet her fate and the fate of others is calmly presented here without a trace of artifice.  Throughout this film, lives are imprinted in our memories due to the exquisite recreation of their extraordinary efforts under extreme duress.  Perhaps knowing the inevitable gave these individuals a unique courage to face death with such heroic stoicism.  It is without doubt a rare privilege to experience such deeply affecting human intimacy. 

 

 

2.)  THREE TIMES                          A                     97                   

Taiwan  (136 mi)  2005      d:  Hou Hsiao-hsien

 

A triptych, three episodes told out of time, connected by the same actors playing different roles in each story, Shu Qi and Chang Chen, the 14-year old Xiao S’ir from BRIGHTER SUMMER DAY (1991), now with a receding hairline, but whose sensitivity onscreen allows for depictions of heretofore undiscovered emotional realms.  Mark Pin Bing Lee provides the sumptuous cinematography which is outstandingly elegant.  Mood is paramount in this film, with brilliant, near wordless character performances, and an interlinking storyline of missed connections, adrift in an emotional void of longing, lost love, and regret, perhaps a poetic rendering of Taiwan’s lost connection to China, seen via historical reference points through human characters that continue to misstep, inexplicably missing their moment in time, avoiding the love interests and historical opportunities standing right in front of them.  While the film may be unusually slow to most viewers, who may think nothing ever really happens, the languid pace beautifully sets up the internalized personal turmoil, which only becomes apparent after we’ve spent sufficient time with the characters.  The editing, the use of sound and music in this film are nothing less than brilliant, as is the acting of Shu Qi in each segment.  From film critic A.O. Scott, “With its slow, oblique, beautifully shot scenes, and its stories that are at once utterly simple and full of resonance and implication, it creates an emotional and sensual effect that is something like falling in love.”

 

"A Time of Love" is set in Kaohsiung in 1966, opening with an Ozu-like shot, where calmness prevails through the extraordinary patience of a camera that looks past a pool table where sliding doors open to the natural world with plant vegetation and giant trees.  Within this setting a parlor girl greets pool players, serving them drinks, encouraging them to play, acting as the establishment’s hostess.  To the music of The Platters “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” and a wordless choreography of glances, smiles, awkward looks, a young man reveals he is about to enter military service, but he will write to her at this address.  She can be seen later receiving the letter, which he reads in a voiceover, claiming he keeps hearing the music of Aphrodite’s Child’s classic song “Rain and Tears,” as he writes his letter, a romantic image of young lovers heartbroken from missing someone.  When he returns to visit over the holidays, she has gone, and he pursues her, thwarted at every turn, where the use of subtitled road signs become a theme after awhile, amusingly so when rhythmic,  Wong Kar-wai-style music is added to his search until ultimately his efforts pay off, discovering her in another pool hall in another town.  Their eyes meet and her smile tells it all.  It’s such an understated, undeclared statement of yearning, attraction and love, beautifully rendered by naturalistic performances that couldn’t be more appealing.  We are drawn into their world through the music, the familiarity of images, a boy, a girl, a pool table, a few casual people mingling, occasional travel shots, including a tribute to Jean Vigo’s L’ATALANTE where a completely ordinary river ferry transporting the young lovers is an expression of transfixed love, whose finally enclasped hands offer the briefest glimpse of hope.

 

“A Time For Freedom” is set in Dadaocheng in 1911, nearly entirely interior shots in a darkened, oil lamp or candle-lit room, where a middle-aged man and woman are dressed in fine silks and behave with impeccable manners towards one another as she carefully combs his long pig-tail.  Mouths open with words, but no sound comes out, instead, intertitles reveal their conversations in an expression of the silent film era.  This is such a brilliant follow up to the near wordless opening segment, creating an experimental feel to the advancement of the narrative, using delicate piano music and perfectly composed edits to create a feeling a extraordinary fragility.  She is hired by the house to take charge of the development of the young girls, teaching them the art of femininity and the life of a courtesan, bringing profits to the house establishment, while he is a free-thinking diplomat following the teachings of a renowned political figure who advocates independence. Taiwan, at that time, was ceded by China to Japan after the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-95).  Interestingly, he goes against his own thinking by agreeing to help one of the young girls of the house who gets pregnant, agreeing to pay part of her future husband’s fee to the house in order to save face in a pre-arranged marriage.  He claims he did this in the interest of the young girl.  When his would-be concubine painstakingly asks about her own interests, as she’s been asked to stay on longer, continuing to work for the house instead of releasing her in freedom, his thoughts remain silent and he never answers, which transitions into a mournful classical-styled Chinese song that she sings.  This heart-rendering episode takes place within the context of the 1911 Wuchang uprising, led by independence-minded Sun Yat-sen to overthrow the rule of the corrupt Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).  At the time, the Yangtze River flooded, drowning 100,000 people, including many of the troops situated near the river.  When the government failed to respond afterwards, where people saw the catastrophe as an act of the government’s weakness, this gave the revolutionary forces a chance to declare a provisional government, forcing a unifying compromise agreement between both sides that led to the eventual formation of the Republic of China.  In Taiwan, the date of the uprising, October 10 is celebrated as a national holiday known as Double Tenth Day.  It is within this historical context that this carefully constructed episode features a progressive-minded revolutionary who could think of his country, even the needs of a young girl he barely knows, but not the freedom of his own concubine, a woman who secretly fumes in silent anguish, forced to continue to endure exceedingly harsh conditions of servitude.  The unreturned love from him is expressed by the way she touches the characters of a letter he has written to her on one of his travel excursions, almost like a fetish, unable to let it go. 

 

The final episode, “A Time For Youth,” is set in modern Taipei in 2005, and immediately it has an odd, frenetic pace of life in the city, abruptly flooding the screen with blurring neon colors, food vendors, traffic noise and video arcades, with quick edits, opening and closing with a long, fast tracking shot of a young couple on a motorcycle, a sort of homage to the aimless indifference of BREATHLESS.  Much of it suddenly outdoors, where humans are immersed in a sea of double decker buses and taxi cabs, displaying a world of constant transition, people coming and going, where relationships drift apart as well.  He works in a Photoshop, while she is a rock singer who suffers from epilepsy and is nearly blind in her right eye.  After a near wordless night together, there’s a wonderful transition where he’s researching her on-line profile at work, which suddenly evolves into a night club scene, led by the hushed undertones of the music, where she is onstage singing in English.  He and several others nearly pornographically photograph her as she performs, amusingly getting underneath and inside every pore.  She’s attempting to escape with him from the insecure demands of her overly suspicious lesbian girlfriend, torn between a world that was and a world that could be, expressed through an endless series of text messages and e-mails, a tenuous thread that barely holds them together at all.  As she grows more weary from the emotional baggage of leaving someone behind, filled with misunderstandings and personal resentments, as well as a series of new expectations, just a roller coaster of insecurity that describes modern relationships, she is pushed and pulled in every direction, all at the same time, going nowhere fast.  Set to sublime musical transitions, she can be seen sitting alone in a darkened corner of the screen, excessive black eye-liner around her eyes, looking like a vampire in distress, an angel of doom, hopelessly racing for a future, that despite her frenetic attempts, never comes, leaving her empty and drained, systemically paralyzed in a permanent state of inertia and disinterest.

 

 

3.)  SYNDROMES AND A CENTURY                 A                     96                   

Thailand  Austria  France  (105 mi)  d:  Apichatpong Weerasethakul

 

A major work, the Thai title is translated as LIGHT AND A CENTURY, which suggests an opposite meaning.  A filmmaker that establishes his own sense of rhythm and pace, which is a languorous expression of the passing of time, this is a wonderfully refreshing film that stakes out its own territory, that lives in its own defined world, loosely based on memories of the director’s parents, lovingly reconfigured into an abstract modern setting, similar perhaps to Hou Hsiao-hsien’s GOOD MEN, GOOD WOMEN, which is simultaneously set in two different historical time frames.  The director candidly exhibits a blend of openness mixed with a touch of spiritual mysticism at the end, expressed through oblique imagery that remains ambiguous and might confound Western analysis.  Weerasethakul captures local flavor through humorous conversations, interesting to the point of absurd observations, and eloquent imagery of green pastoral fields, a house overlooking a river that leads to mountains in the distance, a bridge over a still stream, lush, beautifully landscaped gardens with wooden steps running through, and some rather dazzling images of white hospital corridors, observed from multiple perspectives.  Opening in a rural clinic, a military doctor, Dr. Nohng (Jaruchai Iamaram) is being interviewed by a member of the hospital staff, the gorgeous Dr. Toey (Nantarat Sawaddikul), who gets quite personal in her inquiry, bordering on the comically absurd as the camera veers out the window and settles on a serene pastoral setting.  The film repeats this inquiry in the second half of the film in a completely modern hospital setting, which at times resembles von Trier’s THE KINGDOM, as this hospital appears to have its own peculiar agenda, opening from the mother’s point of view, who was prominently featured, concluding on the father’s, who seemed to get peculiarly sucked into the ether of the hospital.  Both of Weerasethakul’s parents were doctors. 

 

The opening section is very active, filled with jokes and humorous details, plenty of lively people, some of whom are a bit bizarre, but each a heartfelt reflection of a family recollection balanced against a very real part of Thai society reflected back.  A shy man waits patiently to be seen before offering Dr. Toey a gift of food, then has to wait again as she wanders off on some sudden expedition never to return.  A Buddhist monk reveals to Dr. Toey that he tortured and killed chickens in his youth, then recounts a vivid dream where the chickens are ganging up against him, perhaps avenging his youthful cruelty.  The same monk then asks for sleeping pills not for his own ailments, but for the maladies of others who are less fortunate. As a comment on the distrust of modern medicine, the doctor and the monk are seen later exchanging remedies for one another’s physical and spiritual ailments.  We see another monk in a dentist’s chair, his first such visit in his life, confessing he might have liked another profession as a deejay, but the dentist is more interesting in singing a Thai country song for him rather than attending to his teeth. 

 

One of the better moments is when out of the blue, Dr. Nohng, hesitatingly at first, springs the question if Dr. Toey would like to get engaged.  He claims he can’t eat or sleep, that all he can do is think about her, laying his head on a table in utter agony and resignation as she tells him the story of a man who grew orchids.  Interrupting the first chance he gets, she reassures him she’s not marrying the man, and calmly continues the story, which is told in flashback.  He lives with his mother in a lavish location with a view for miles overlooking a river.  After some time spent with them both, from inside the house, like a Frank Lloyd Wright interior design offering infinite space to the horizons, literally expanding the interior space of the home with the surrounding hills, we look out through three small square windows to the landscape beyond as music begins to play, eventually finding the singer of a hauntingly beautiful bossa nova-style song accompanied by a lone guitar, which turns out to be the singing dentist on stage before a small crowd.  Later, in a lush garden, he is seen talking to the monk, claiming the monk bears a physical resemblance to his lost brother who died at age 8, explaining he feels a certain responsibility for his death, wondering if he might be his reincarnation and if he could offer his atonement. 

 

The original interview resurfaces again from a different camera angle, but this half of the film is quieter, less jovial, and more abstract, filled with empty spaces.  This completely modern Bangkok hospital has a basement corridor where amputees are seen in rehab trying to walk while welders are at machines designing prosthetic devices in the same room.  In another room, a local TV personality is in a small room with several other doctors, pulling a whisky flask out of a prosthetic leg laying in a pile from the corner.  Another doctor enters the room accompanying a young man who worked in an auto factory and is suffering from carbon dioxide poisoning.  The TV doctor attempts a holistic massage with hypnotic suggestions in hopes he might improve, but it proves fruitless, as does the whisky, as the doctor is later seen alone in the room, fast asleep.  Eventually the all-white corridors are eerily empty, as strange industrial sounds, designed by Shimizu Koichi, can be heard.  The camera re-enters the prosthetic room which is filled with a dusty white smoke, as if the room is contaminated.  But as the camera slowly moves around the room, it zeroes in on a strange trunk-like ventilator with a large black circle on the end that literally sucks the white smoke into its black hole for several minutes, air streaming inside, like a river of memories disappearing forever from human consciousness.  After what seems like a final shot, the film continues with a scene reminiscent to the rousing musical finale to Takeshi Kitano’s THE BLIND SWORDSMAN:  ZATOICHI, this film also sends the viewer out with a smile, with a collective music and dance number that is bewilderingly effective.

 

What I found most interesting was how the design of the film was a choreography of unfinished or incomplete relationships, an engagement proposal that was never answered, a lovely story in the beginning about the man with the orchids that was never finished, a relationship with another doctor near the end that had an ending, but no beginning, doctors that never seemed to actually treat their patients, but leave them sitting alone in their offices, a hospital that was a flurry of activity, including groups of runners in colorful attire running through the halls, but where there was very little evidence of actually healing patients, instead the camera becomes consumed with dead end hospital corridors, patients who can’t be cured, and memories that are all but fleeting in our lives.  Interesting as well that the parents are portrayed in differing periods of time, apparently the same age in each, but shown with unusually different perspectives, where in each they are only a small part of what we see, completely integrated into the whole.  

 

 

4.)  INSIDE PARIS (DANS PARIS)           A                     95

France  (93 mi)  2006  d:  Christophe Honoré

 

A jarring, fully absorbing film experience, one that bursts with a free-wheeling energy that moves from being delightfully clever and amusing to raw and unflinchingly honest, that at its core is dense and probing, intelligently written by Honoré himself with moments of pure brilliance, a terrific ensemble cast, beautifully edited, featuring stunning shots by Jean-Louis Vialard, and a knock-out, jazzy musical score by Alex Beaupain mixed with bits of punk tracks, including Kim Wilde’s “Cambodia.”  While the film pays reverential tribute to the energetic French New Wave style of Godard (BREATHLESS, BAND OF OUTSIDERS), Truffaut (JULES AND JIM), Eustache (MOTHER AND THE WHORE), Rivette (CELINE AND JULIE GO BOATING), or even Demy (THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG), what it ultimately has to offer is uniquely its own.  Set in modern day Paris with the Eiffel Tower looming outside the apartment balcony, the film opens with one character Jonathan (Louis Garrel) speaking directly to the audience, introducing himself as the narrator of the story, which is a little unsettling, as it has all the makings of a completely pretentious device that could derail the rest of the picture, instead it provides a calm before the storm, as we are soon jettisoned into the middle of an intense, contentious love affair between his brother Paul, Romain Duris and his girl friend Anna, Joana Preiss, with blood curdling accusations being hurled that suggest Paul is pretentiously avoiding their need for separation.

 

We backtrack a bit into an earlier period where there was still optimism and hope, where the punk music sets the stage for a moody and introspective assault to the senses, where there’s a kind of animal attraction between the two, but where Paul is already exhibiting sure signs of trouble.  Instead of probing this source of anguish, the film instead explores the dynamics of the relationship between the two brothers and their divorced father, Mirko (Guy Marchand), an interesting kind of guy who seems out of a different kind of film, perhaps Eastern European, who could have been the Writer or the Professor in Tarkovsky’s STALKER, as he has a modernist Waiting for Godot sensibility, who obviously means well, but is completely clueless about how to communicate with or understand both his sons.  This is the heart of the film, as it draws us into the modern dysfunctional helplessness that this family comes to represent, especially Paul, who falls into a depressive funk and can’t get out of bed, who seems emotionally distraught and hopelessly out of touch.  Despite a quick appearance from their fashionably bourgeois mother, Marie-France Pisier from CELINE AND JULIE, who leaves in a huff, neither the father nor Jonathan can get Paul to budge, though Jonathan’s exuberant Jean-Pierre Léaud-like efforts take us through a myriad of 60’s films, which are expressed with a relentless joie de vivre that is simply captivating, as he’s the offspring of this joyous spirit of optimism, hoping some of it will rub off on his brother.  Along the way he gets detoured, however, by the likes of Héléna Noguerra, a girl on a scooter, Annabelle Hettmann, who he sees in a window image standing outside the Bon Marché Christmas store windows, and especially Alice (Alice Butaud), an ex-flame who just couldn’t be more adorable, and whose sparing appearances in this film only elevate the moments when she is onscreen. 

 

It is Duris’s intimate portrayal of Paul, however, that stands out in this film, as clinical depression was not a prominent feature of the youth driven, hi-energy French New Wave, and it is rare to find a director showing genuine insight into this all too common modern affliction, which depletes the energy and psychic resources of the entire family, epitomized by the gulf of despair that surrounds Mirko in his loving but unsuccessful attempts to offer help.  The contrast between the two brothers couldn’t be more markedly different, like the yin and yang of the male species, one gregarious and outgoing, the other introspective and brooding, yet they come together through an unusual common bond, the grief of their dead sister who died a dozen years ago who may also have suffered from depression, a factor that lingers in the mind of Paul who can’t shake an overwhelming sense of inertia.  The film finds remarkably quiet and tender moments, but none more surprising than when Paul makes a late night phone call to Anna, and in time to the same music we’ve been hearing throughout the film, they slowly begin singing what appears to be an improvised song entitled “Avant la Haine” (“Before the Hate”), which is simply magical.  This is followed by the reading of a children’s story, where we see the bright, colorful pages while it’s being read, again a clever device that accentuates the universality from early on of hiding from one’s fears.  All the way through to the final shot, there’s a lucid clarity about the director’s intentions.  A film that is full of wonderful surprises, not the least of which is a dazzling virtuosity that beautifully balances the familiar to explore our unfamiliarity with finding love in the world we live in today.

 

 

 

5.)  HALF NELSON                         A                     95

USA  (106 mi)  2006  d:  Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden

 

Reminding me a bit of the anguished journey in MORVERN CALLAR, which takes place nearly entirely inside someone’s head, or like Alice searching through the Looking Glass, this is a muddled odyssey through the present day and age, as seen through the eyes of a sympathetic white 8th grade teacher in a predominately black inner-city school in Brooklyn, who scores crack on the side and thinks he can handle the situation while also teaching his kids history, asking them to explore the two opposing forces that confront one another in determining change, which he contends is the catalyst or determining factor of history, while also seen through the eyes of a young student in his class who actually catches him smoking crack in the bathroom, but is sympathetic and keeps her mouth shut, as her brother is in prison for selling crack, and the dealer, in a favor to the brother for not turning him in, owes her family.  Ryan Gosling is unerringly believable as the teacher, Dan Dunne, who isn’t selling anything in the classroom except the freedom to speak one’s own mind while making their own choices.  And while his own choice selection is hazardous, not to mention personally destructive, this issue is not side-stepped in the film, and his deplorable behavior is a force to be reckoned with, including an attempted rape scene, but so is his commitment to stick with these kids, to be honest and not sell them a bill of goods.  Thinking that he can write a children’s book about dialectics on the side, instead he spends all his free time getting wasted.  Shareeka Epps plays the inquisitive Drey, a 13-year old latch key student caught between moving forces, a dead end school, a tired single mother who works too hard to have any time for her, a brother in prison, a dealer that offers money and protection, and a white teacher who, despite his personal problems, actually makes sense.  Her hesitation in exploring each world is the heart and soul of the film, as she’s remarkably appealing, tough and soft at the same time, with an open mind to finding a new way other than the route of her brother or the dealer, but she doesn’t know where to find it. 

 

Anthony Mackie plays Frank the dealer, and in the model of THE GODFATHER, which features likeable men who kill for a living, or HUSTLE AND FLOW, which features a likeable, hard-working man who pimps for a living, Mackie has his own appeal, is soft-spoken and considerate, and doesn’t push Drey too hard while gently attempting to persuade her to take over her brother’s business.  When Dan sees the paternal and potentially dangerous influence, he attempts to intervene, and in an especially effective scene, he confronts Frank in front of his own home and tries to steer Frank away from Drey, but realizes he’s hardly the role model to be making this request, as his example is no better.  Frank, in a masterful stroke of understated psychological swagger, completely takes the air out of his sails, and there lies the real complexity of the film.  If we’re to be honest, how can we blame black dealers for being dealers, considering the economic options and the lure of a lucrative lifestyle?  In fact, what drives the demand for dealers in the first place?  Who are the biggest drug consumers?  In America, it turns out to be the comfortable middle class whites, who may be in denial about the consequences of their actions, like Dan in this film, believing he can handle it, while remaining oblivious to the economic disparity between blacks and whites, and the social injustice contrasted between the races, especially if ever arrested.  But this film places the responsibility front and center on the white middle class, on the Baby Boomers, the ones who marched against the war in Vietnam, or for voting rights in the South, the ones who supposedly offered an alternate moral view, as reflected by the black and white newsreel footage that Mr. Dunne shows his kids, such as the assassination of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected representative in the U.S, or Cesar Chavez, whose boycotts helped establish rights and benefits for migrant farm workers, or America’s CIA advocating the overthrow and assassination of a freely elected leader of Chile, Salvador Allende, replacing him with a U.S. puppet, General Augusto Pinochet, now up on war crimes charges, while Henry Kissinger expressed the U.S. view that the issue was too important to leave to the Chilean people, or Mario Savio leading the Berkeley free speech rally, where the students occupied the administration building, suggesting they could help open up a crack in “the Machine.”  Mr. Dunne makes the connection that by truthfully analyzing the problems of the past, we might find some clues into how to solve these problems in the future.  Like characters in a Jean Eustache film, whatever happened to this moral optimism, this belief that people could work together to fight against social injustice?  Everything’s become so comfortably compartmentalized now, so specialized, each looking after only their own interests, which is the modern era status quo, there’s no longer any belief that we are all in this together or that concerted action can make a difference. 

 

Enhanced by the edgy, somewhat vacuous style of the film that at times resembles an amorphous blur, it’s grounded in the raw vulnerability of several brilliant dramatic performances.  But identifying with the film isn’t easy, it’s disjointed, sometimes out of focus, or the hand-held camera keeps physically being knocked around a bit, so there’s a rough quality, a mood of ambiguity, with occasional eerie industrial or electronic sounds along with a psychologically probing soundtrack by Broken Social Scene.  Despite the film’s unsparingly honest, near documentary style, it occasionally departs from naturalism, such as a noticeable scene when Drey visits her brother in prison, which takes place in perfect quiet, unlike the raucous noise that is typical of overcrowded prisons today, or when the students stare straight into the camera and repeat memorized moments in history, like similar set up scenes in ANNIE HALL, but it also perfectly captures the wretched state of Dan’s wasted mind when a proud parent comes up to him in a nightclub to thank him for his daughter’s success at Georgetown and he can’t even remember her.  Still, this accurately points out how badly we need good teachers with challenging, inquisitive minds like Dan in the public school system, despite his obvious damaged goods, as his painful honesty is heartfelt and believable, made all the more compelling because the unconventional person behind the message is so flawed.  Kids remember being in his class, and not the automatons pushing standardized testing that school boards would prefer.  Born to radical parents on a commune in Berkeley, and growing up in the same area, I suspect co-writer and director Ryan Fleck shares much in common with Dan’s travails, as picking up on the residue of leftover 60’s themes comes with paying a high price for disillusionment.  This film begins to explore finding a way out by linking some of our cultural connections to our human imperfections, by literally building a bridge of mutual tolerance.

 

 

6.)  LITTLE CHILDREN                 A                     95

USA  (130 mi)  2006  d:  Todd Field

 

A small understated gem of a film whose bold discomforting detachment and occasional mock tone belies its aim to cut through the superficiality, that strangely touches on our Puritan interests as a society, where we all have to huddle together in mass and feel like we’re cut from the same cloth, where everyone obviously must agree with us, as there’s simply no other point of view.  This image of pointing inwards toward ourselves, this small town portrait of a democratized America which has all but forgotten the meaning of the word freedom, this slumbering giant of a nation which is portrayed with a sobering vision that at times resembles the unpleasant acrid sarcasm of von Trier’s DOGVILLE, complete with a narrator that sounds oddly detached and outside the realm of the characters he’s commenting upon, which certainly catches us by surprise when a man’s voice starts voicing the innermost thoughts of a female character, this is an oddly oriented film that reaches the depths of our emotions with the “wrong” characters.  What’s going on here, asking what exactly is meant by Homeland Security?  This is a superbly written story capturing the hilarious yet nauseatingly mundane rhythms of daily routine that pointedly challenges our growing complacency, that literally scolds our preconceived notions as being without foresight or merit, that makes us go back to the drawing board and ask ourselves what kind of a world do we wish to live in, and what part are we going to play in it?  Using a novelistic structure that references Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, a metaphor for the suffocation of our now over-privileged souls, OUR TOWN returns as a similarly repressed, but now straight-jacketed nation whose values are under siege. 

 

Wow, this film really takes it all on, but it does so without political overkill and with a degree of subtlety that is fascinating throughout, utilizing superb, open-ended storytelling and the development of believable, well-crafted characters, none of whom are particularly likeable.  Kate Winslet once again finds herself immersed in a powerful role as Sarah, the Madame Bovary of the neighborhood who dares to consider adultery liberating, refusing to accept the suffocation of a loveless marriage that has all but sapped her inner spirit and left her clearly a stranger to herself, who practices the same rituals as all the other middle class housewives, who is a stay at home mom spending “quality time” with her daughter every day, but who barely recognizes herself anymore.  In the children’s park, she discovers another intriguing character, Patrick Wilson is Brad, the All American guy who is labeled the Prom King by the other stay at home moms in the park hovering over their children, like mother hawks, who practice protection through elicit yet thoroughly judgmental and stiflingly intolerant views, who are seen as a Greek chorus suspicious of anything different or out of the ordinary, a cauldron of Salem witch trial rumors and guilt by association.  In Brad and Sarah, we find the non-breadwinners of their marriages, each struggling with feelings of failure, who defer to the dominant but thoroughly flawed characteristics of their more economically ambitious partners, the ones “society” would label as the most responsible.  In this hole or spiritual pit that they have allowed themselves to fall into, there is an extraordinary urge to try something else, to take a risk, to give themselves another opportunity to rediscover who they are and what they believe in.  This film gives them that chance through romantic afternoon interludes which may be more an open act of rebellion than love, but it appears to provide them a catalyst for growth.

 

Within this community conflict, this variation on DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES, where the protection of children is a moral rule that is thrown around in the most hostile and despicable manner, where anything different, or not perfect, is considered a threat, throw into this mix a pedophile, Ronnie, simply an amazing performance by Jackie Earle Haley, a convicted sex offender who was recently released from serving his prison term, now living at home with his mother, the still loving and supportive Phyllis Sommerville.  There’s a scene on a hot summer day where Ronnie decides to go swimming in the public pool that is nothing less than hair-raising, yet it perfectly expresses the essence of the CAPTURING THE FRIEDMANS hysteria that is still at play in our society, which bears a strange resemblance to the post 9/11 terrorist alert hysteria.  Making matters worse, a former cop, Larry (Noah Emmerich), goes on a one man rampage to alert the neighborhood of this danger in their midst, posting photos of the man that dominate the urban landscape, continually hounding him at his home, never giving it a rest, treating this man like vermin that needs to be eradicated. 

 

While it’s conceivable that the final outcome may feel a bit contrived, this doesn’t in any way diminish the unusual character development or detract from the originality of the material.  Needless to say, this is a complicated work highlighting the flawed and damaged among us, from the pillars of our society, the ones who would admit no wrong, the zealously righteous who become a walking contagious disease that contaminates the very core of our lives with a reeking hypocrisy, to our own weak-kneed response to the abhorrent, swirling out of control moral order that is imposed upon us, where it’s easier to do nothing, say nothing, feel nothing, and allow this feeling of benign resignation to blight our withered souls, to become transformed into something meaningless and unrecognizable.  This dramatically effective work purges the obvious from the artificial surface and allows us to feel something lurking underneath that may be completely foreign to us.  Taking a page out of the innocent children’s playground in Kurosawa’s IKIRU, we’re rediscovering within ourselves the almost completely forgotten human attribute of empathy.      

 

 

7.)  GAME 6                                       A-                    94                   

USA  (87 mi)  2004  d:  Michael Hoffman

 

This could be it

 

The first impression that jolts the audience is the off-beat tone of the extraordinarily witty screenplay by Don DeLillo, which is relentlessly inventive, warm, quirky, funny, matched perfectly by the low key understated music by Yo La Tengo, a nice, taut structure, while maintaining a fabulous pacing throughout, opening with radio remarks about the piles of traffic in and around New York City in anticipation of game 6 of the 1986 World Series between the Mets and the Red Sox, as told in philosophical revelations by an ethereal announcer known as Lone Eagle, the voice of David Guion.  Shot in twenty days for less than half a million dollars entirely in and around New York City, beautifully capturing the street life of Manhattan, the films tells a story through a series of taxi rides, each seemingly going nowhere, each with a driver from a different ethnic nationality, but each leading to a different level of crisis by the passenger, playwright Michael Keaton in perhaps the performance of his career, in one momentous day in his life that will apparently decide his destiny.

 

The film mixes fiction, even a stage play within the film, and the real television broadcast images announced by Vince Scully on a fateful day for Boston Red Sox fans, a day they lived up to their expectations of blowing the big one, despite a two run lead in the top of the tenth, and getting the first two outs in the bottom of the inning.  It was basically all but won.  But somehow, the Red Sox found a way to lose, culminating with the infamous Bill Buckner error between his legs allowing the winning run to score.  Keaton’s new play is also opening on Broadway that same night, perhaps his most personal yet, a play that represents his life and his family, everything that defines him as a man, yet he’s continually warned that it will be killed by the city’s leading theater critic, played as an eccentric Zen yogi by Robert Downey Jr, whose reviews are so scathing, he lives incognito in an abandoned apartment in an industrial park without a toilet, where there is instead a port-o-potty, and where he’s forced to carry a loaded gun.  Interspersed throughout all the baseball lore, Keaton has to face his own demons, his own fear of failure, which is exacerbated by a lead actor, Harris Yulin, who has returned from a third world adventure in Borneo with a parasite growing in his brain which causes him to forget his lines, by an impending divorce from his wife Catherine O’Hara, largely due to his open affair with Bebe Neuwirth, who appears in a wonderful seduction sequence clad only in black lingerie exposing her naked ass, by his random meetings with his daughter, brilliantly played by a rebelliously punk Ari Graynor, reminding him how far he has disconnected from his own family, even a visit to his old man, another wonderful performance by “The Sopranos” Tom Aldredge, where just getting his dad to open the door is a scene stealer in itself, and with occasional banter with an old time friend, Griffin Dunne, a voice of doom who is deeply connected with Keaton’s theater world, but who has deteriorated so completely after being demolished in print by Downey Jr. that he now has the look of a homeless man, scraping around garbage cans wearing headphones, muttering incoherently to himself.  Within this context, and the constant interchange of cab drivers, Keaton must find himself.

 

Set between original sequences, always an unpredictable mix of the hysterical and the bizarre, and one can not overemphasize enough the remarkable ensemble acting performances, there are brilliant scenes in bars in this film, where Keaton gets into it with Met fans about how when the Mets lose, it’s just a game.  But when the Red Sox lose, there is a rich layer of history that deepens the blow, that makes it a thing of legends, where another generation of children praying for a win will have to suffer the ignominious suffering of defeat, yet again, which takes a certain kind of intestinal fortitude, a test of meddle, and how one responds to it is the real truth of a man.  Interesting that one of the cab drivers becomes a focal point in the story, as Keaton decides to have dinner next to the theater with the driver and her young grandson, who she’s taking home from school.  In the bar, while watching the world series game, instead of being at his play next door, he engages his frustrations in a bar filled with Met fans, and a born-again cab driver who convinces him he has to believe in himself, that he has to affirm his destiny, and not allow the Red Sox to lose, which is all wrapped around the last pitch, where one by one, they each say, “This could be it,” the same line his lead actor keeps forgetting, all wrapped around one momentous moment.  His conversion is one out away from happening, but the collapse is sublime.  

 

 

8.)  HEADING SOUTH                    A-                    94                   

aka:  Vers Le Sud

France  Canada  (108 mi)  2005  d:  Laurent Cantet

 

It’s hard to tell the good masks from the bad, but everyone wears one.

 

Based on "La Chair du Maitre," a book of connected stories by Haitian writer Dany Laferrière, this is an exquisitely beautiful film with an extremely difficult and intricately complex subject matter, sex tourism and the lingering influence of colonialism.  Continuing Cantet’s themes on worker displacement and the dehumanization of the work force, witnessing the horrid effects of child labor, this film clearly shows that capitalism has winners, but at the expense of large segments of the rest of the world who, as a consequence of the lavish lifestyle of a few, live in abject poverty with absolutely no hope of any change in their lifetime.  As a result, the poor are manipulated into unspeakable actions, enhanced by their need to survive, where from their position of powerlessness they overcompensate by becoming tradable commodities in human flesh. 

 

Aided by powerful performances which bring to life the vacation habits of 3 older rich, middle-aged white women who travel to a seaside resort in Port-au-Prince, Haiti during the 1970’s, the era of the Duvalier regime, where cops were little more than street thugs terrorizing anyone who so much as looked at them funny, yet these American women live a completely luxurious lifestyle where they are waited on hand and foot by young, scantily clad, subservient black men, sometimes even boys, completely oblivious to the world just a few blocks away.  The film examines a world within a world, which has an established hierarchy that is brilliantly realized by a series of offhand looks, grimaces, glances, women noticing other women, particularly what men they are with, somewhat jealous when the man is someone who has also paid them attention.  Ménothy Cesar as Legba is one such 18-year old man who passes himself off between several women, giving each a good time, but is something of a handsome, well-paid gigolo who is usually clad only in a swimsuit.  They lavish him with praise, special gifts, and even desperately promise him a passport out of the country to return home with them to America.  What do they really know about this striking young man?

 

There’s a stunning opening scene where a woman attempts to give her own 15-year old daughter away to a well-to-do man at the airport, as she knows what the future holds for a poor black girl in Haiti, desperate to offer her a chance that she otherwise could not provide.  Into this scenario walks Brenda (Karen Young), a shy, sensitive middle fortyish woman from Savannah, Georgia, very much reminiscent of the fragility of Tennessee William’s The Glass Menagerie, or Joanne Woodward’s wonderful portrayal of a middle aged woman’s first love in her husband’s 1968 film, RACHEL RACHEL.  Three years earlier, she met this same young man, Legba, on the same beaches in Haiti, and it was the most remarkable sexual moment of her life, which she recalls in graphic detail.  She has never gotten it out of her mind and returns, hoping to rediscover the same romantic magic.  But he is already part of an existing social structure led by a domineering queen bee, Ellen, the perfectly cast Charlotte Rampling, a mid fiftyish French literature professor at Wellesley, who for the past 5 or 6 years has been spending her summers at this same resort.  Legba is in her company, and is at her beck and call.  Brenda, to say the least, is stunned, yet all eyes are glued to one another’s every move.  Add to this mix Sue, Louise Portal, a warehouse manager who works in Montreal, who has her own Haitian boyfriend, but is quite aware that this relationship works here and here alone in an idyllic paradise, as back home, they would probably never even speak to one another. 

 

The few moments when the camera moves to the streets of Haiti are riveting, resembling the visceral, hand-held camera style of Michael Winterbottom, revealing hordes or people everywhere, kids begging for coins, street vendors plying their trade asking for next to nothing, but it’s alive with a kinetic energy that jolts us to attention.  Almost immediately, the police make their presence, bullying a young kid, needlessly threatening him.  The entire population cowers in response, backing off, saying nothing, daring not to interfere.  Meanwhile, back on the beach, Ellen remains in control with her acid tongue, laying down the law of the land, entitlement, suggesting the young boys are there for the picking, all they have to do is ask and their carnal desires will be satisfied.  Eventually Brenda gets a few moments alone with Legba, but she is constantly humiliated and ridiculed by Ellen, who then calls him over, as if he is her prized possession.  Much of this plays out in typical colonialist imagery, the difference being Brenda has a special affection that goes beyond racist depictions.

 

Each of the major players has a personal soliloquy in front of the camera, the most striking is Albert (Lys Ambroise), a native Haitian who works the bar and restaurant at the resort, the same man from the opening scene where a woman attempted to give him her child, a cautious and restrained man, extremely well mannered, impeccably dressed, explaining how whites were depicted as savages in his grandfather’s day, literally lower than animals after their invasion of Haiti in 1915, describing his position today:  "If he knew I was a waiter for Americans, he would die of shame.  Today, whites wield an even more dangerous weapon than cannons — their dollars:  Everything they touch turns to garbage."  Prophetic words.

 

Pierre Milon's ravishingly beautiful cinematography, along with the perfectly chosen locations and sensuous native music, all add a layer of detailed precision, best expressed in a startling dance sequence where the hotel bar is throwing a party filled with dancers, among which include Brenda and Legba, after both have been thoroughly denounced by Ellen, so there is a feeling of literally letting go, where the music takes on an especially improvisational percussive tone.  Brenda becomes oblivious to everyone else, ignoring her partner, dancing completely alone, whirling around as if under the influence of a voodoo chant, literally cast under a spell where all the other dancers stop and stare until Legba urges the musicians to change to a slower musical number.  What transpires after that can only be described as strange and off-setting, as events deteriorate rapidly where Brenda’s whole demeanor is somehow transformed from a sensitive romantic into a capitalist blood-sucker, into that of Ellen, another rich, cynical, self-centered American who thinks the world is theirs for the taking, blind and completely oblivious of the consequences. 

 

 

 

9.)  AALTRA                                     A-                    94                   

Belgium  (94 mi)  2004  d:  Benoit Delepine and Gustave Kervern

 

A terrific looking black and white ‘Scope film, that opens with the title on the screen which is so small you can barely see it, then the screen expands to a widescreen image of a bullet train making its way across the screen.  One thing this film has plenty of is attitude, and it’s in all the right places, as this slowly developing story, created by and starring the co-directors themselves as two pestering neighbors who hate each other, expands to an entirely different universe, turning into a road film with two despicable subjects that earn no sympathy, which is actually their endearing charm.  Yet somehow, through expert placement of shots in a largely wordless film, also demonstrating extreme patience in allowing their scenes to develop, the film slowly grows on you until it becomes hilarious by the end, buoyed by a brief appearance by none other than Aki Kaurismäki, who is simply perfect in his part.  The film is a carefully constructed series of Tati-like sight gags, including untranslatable arguments which are not subtitled, immersing us into a culturally mixed European land with no borders, where we are subject to French, German, Dutch, Finnish and English languages at some point or the other. 

 

Two bickering farmers live across the road from one another, with love having deserted them both, so the only love they have is in annoying the hell out of the other one, eventually leading to a tractor accident that oddly leaves them both paralyzed below the waist.  When the doctor tells them it’s time to send the “twins” home, they have seconds thoughts about what they want to do, and both end up at the train station, one wheelchair right behind the other at the ticket office.  Traveling together, yet utilizing every opportunity to split from the other one, they end up at a motocross race, where they each budge their way to the front of a fence where they can see, basically driving their wheelchairs over people.  The camera is set at wheelchair level, so there’s an interesting scene with a father and son where we never see the father’s head.  It’s always out of the frame, but it’s our first hint at dark humor.  One gets a ride in a van, and as they’re about the leave the parking area, we see through the front windshield the other in his wheelchair hitching a ride.  Somehow the two are taken by a nice family to the beach, wheelchairs comfortably in the sand, where we see them share a bottle of vodka that they stole from the van’s cooler, both eventually falling asleep in their chairs.  An argument breaks out in a foreign tongue, no words are translated.  Off in the distance we see the van that brought them slowly pull away, leaving the twins alone on the beach.  The water rises, and rises.  They boys are in trouble, but it plays out beautifully. 

 

When the twins turn up together in a punk bar, we see them off in a corner as the camera scans the entire establishment, and the thought of them in this raucous atmosphere seems plenty ridiculous.  Later we see them sprawled on the sidewalk the next morning, their money and credit cards stolen, but this hardly deters them.  They somehow steal an electric wheelchair from an unsuspecting elderly couple, they steal an automated motorbike from another serious racer who was generous enough to give one of them a ride, but who afterwards comes after him with a vengeance to get his bike back, but on and on they go, always pulled off to the side of the road, sitting in complete stillness in their wheelchairs waiting for a ride.  There’s a wonderful image of them wheeling themselves down a highway while a row of giant windmills, the kind that generate electricity, spin gently in time off to the side of the road.

 

They wheel into a neatly manicured middle class neighborhood and slowly edge into the back yard where a family is eating outside, gesturing that one of them needs help recharging his electric battery.  The other is offered food, and what follows is priceless, as he appears to take food off of the plate of just about everyone there, even out of the hands of the kids straight into his mouth, always asking for another beer, or later, still there for dinner, the camera angle is placed behind his shoulder as the parents stare befuddled, as if caught in a temporary coma, as one of the twins happily mixes the salad, filling his plate, asking if there isn’t any sauce?  Later the parents are in bed, wide awake in the middle of the night, as we hear the sound of the electric wheelchair buzzing for more service.  The next morning, they are left on the side of the road, their things thrown in the middle of the road as the van pulls away, and we can read the roadside sign, “Highway to Hell.”

 

The boys have an interest in going to Finland, and improbably, they find a boat that takes them across, as someone kindly wheels them off the boat to dry land.  As they wheel through town, we see the cobblestones being carefully vacuumed.  They end up at what appears to be a biker bar, with the head of a moose hanging on the wall, as a karaoke performer does his Finnish rendition of Bobby Hebb’s “Sonny” to a startlingly subdued audience which is showing absolutely no reaction.  The filmmakers do not cut however, and instead let the singer complete the entire song, as the absurdity of the situation slowly grows and grows until it’s simply hysterical.    

 

But they find their final destination, the Finnish Vaaltra tractor factory, where they make their presence known, demanding 6 million euros each for their injuries.  As they yell and shout their demands through a glass enclosed partition, like a currency exchange, behind the glass, a secretary completely ignores them as she idly chats away her time, without a care in the world, as the twins are frantically getting more and more hysterical.  We see them parked on the merchandise floor the next morning, nicely groomed and dressed in a tie, expecting to meet the president of the company and settle this once and for all.  But they are instead informed they are at the Vaaltra factory, not the one they want called Aaltra which is across town.  We see them frantically wheeling through the woods, arriving at what appears to be a dilapidated, broken down auto repair business, inside, nothing but guys in wheelchairs performing who knows what work tasks, welding, soldering, assembling things together, with nothing resembling a tractor in sight.  The camera closes in on Aki’s stern face.  “I see you’re familiar with our product.”   Outside, in a light rain, they all sit in their wheelchairs passing the vodka bottle around, commiserating in their misery.  As each brief segment ends, suddenly it fades to black, which is the style that Aki Kaurismäki uses in his films, so one after another we see brief little segments, each fading to black, closing out the film, a nice little tribute to the king of minimalist deadpan comedy. 

 

 

10.)  SWEET LAND                        A-                    94

USA  (110 mi)  2005  d:  Ali Salem

 

Supposedly fifteen years in the making, Egyptian-American Selim, a Minnesota native himself, reconfigures his own family’s immigrant journey that took them from a foreign land into the heart of America, setting this story in the harsh Scandinavian farmlands of Minnesota following shortly after the end of the 1st World War.  Adapted by the director, inspired by the Will Weaver short story “A Gravestone Made of Wheat,” the film has a similar feel with another literary transformation, THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY, as both are unique profoundly moving love stories fixed in the authenticity of the land in which the story is set, featuring people from the heartland, no nonsense, hard-working people who judge the success of their lives by the severity of the obstacles they have had to learn to overcome.  Opening in the present, with a brief coda at the end, most of this is told in flashback, where the people and their land are dwarfed against the immensity of the space around them, making all things on earth seem small and somehow insignificant, yet this film has a way to make every moment feel necessary and significant.  There are brilliant moments of indescribable tenderness which express a profound distance between people, yet at the same time bind them together with an unshakeable bond. 

 

The film opens when Lois Smith as Inge decides her deceased husband is not going to the funeral home, that he’ll be staying right there with her for the remainder of that night, as we see a collection of seemingly unrelated photographs pass before our eyes and the time changes to just after WWI as two immigrant women meet at the train station, both mail order brides, where the language deficiency has a dramatic impact almost immediately.  Elizabeth Reaser is marvelous as the younger Inge and is “the” essential ingredient of this film and more than anything else, elevates the dramatic intensity of every shot by the sheer power of her performance, most of it in a wordless state of perpetual puzzlement.  She’s not deaf or blind, or lost her senses, she simply can’t speak English.  And her would be husband, Olaf (Tim Guinee), is a man of few words himself.  But the two are stymied by a collective small town community force against them once the Lutheran minister (John Heard) discovers that though she came from Norway, she’s German, the country we recently fought in war.  When he discovers all of her papers are not in order, that there is no record of her recorded birth, he not only refuses to marry them, but he shuns her from the church, turning her into an outcast before the parishioners.  Olaf rightly asks, “Wasn’t Martin Luther German?” but to no avail, which only leads the two of them into having no other options except to turn to one another.

 

There’s a beautiful sense of isolation and distance, but in the immediate present the director accentuates a dramatic disparity that we are alike, but also unlike one another, that we may strive to lend a hand, but in hard times, the distrust and full blown prejudice exhibited towards outsiders may rock any community that means well, that even with the message of God and the Church, we do not always act accordingly.  Alan Cummings plays Olaf’s outspoken neighbor and wonderfully welcoming best friend, Frandsen, who’s for the most part an unsuccessful farmer who’s down on his luck, but he’s married to the luminous Alex Kingston, and despite a house full of kids, they temporarily put up Inge in their home because the couple is not married, creating still more separation, finally finding a singular moment of peace when a home baked apple pie deliciously transcends all language barriers.  There’s a beautiful moment when we know Inge’s had enough when she rises in the dark of the early morning and walks through a vast field to Olaf’s solitary home where overhead the northern lights are brilliantly illuminated.  This is a wonderful expression of change that describes how delicately this director weaves us through a choreography of quiet intimacy and tonal shifts, where untranslated personal frustration may not be expressed in words we understand, but in the sound or tone in which they are spoken. 

There are gaps in credibility, however, when it comes to harvesting a field of such enormity, which leads to the one unfathomable moment in the film that would have us believe in the better angels of man, but this could have turned into Potter’s field, to use an IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE comparison.  Only by a slender thread does this couple, like many others, eventually survive.  But Reaser and Guinee are both endlessly fascinating in conveying an undeniable attraction to one another and in sustaining a heightened interest in their characters without ever holding a conversation in English, so vividly refreshing that one wished the camera would never leave them.  But by the time we briefly return to the present, we definitely know who they are and what they mean to one another, as we’ve been privy to the kind of choices that define the commonality of living a life together.  Rooted in historical authenticity, enhanced by the painterly cinematography of David Tumlety and the music of Mark Orton, this wonderfully spare and unpretentious film is nothing less than an exquisite expression of the origins of love.     

  

 

 

BEST ACTOR

Edward Norton – Down in the Valley

Matt Dillon – Factotum

*Ryan Gosling – Half Nelson

David Dencik – A Soap

Jürgen Vogel – The Free Will

Forest Whitaker – The Last King of Scotland

 

 

BEST ACTRESS

Shu Qi – Three Times

Charlotte Rampling – Heading South  

Shareeka Epps – Half Nelson

Trine Dyrholm – A Soap

*Helen Mirren – The Queen

Elizabeth Reaser – Sweet Land

Judi Dench – Notes On a Scandal

 

 

BEST SUPP ACTOR

Nick Nolte – Clean

Anthony Mackie – Half Nelson

Mario Limonta – Barrio Cuba

Mark Wahlberg – The Departed

*Jackie Earle Haley – Little Children

Djimon Hounsou – Blood Diamond

 

 

BEST SUPP ACTRESS

Ari Graynor – Game 6

Karen Young – Heading South

*Lili Taylor – Factotum

Luisa María Jiménez – Barrio Cuba

Diane Wiest – A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints

Jennifer Hudson – Dreamgirls

 

                                                                       

BEST DIRECTOR

Martin Scorsese                       USA                 The Departed

Hou Hsiao-hsien                       Taiwan             Three Times

*Jean-Pierre Melville               France              Army of Shadows

Christophe Honoré                   France              Inside Paris (Dans Paris)

Paolo Sorrentino                      Italy                  The Family Friend 

Apichatpong Weerasethakul     Thailand           Syndromes and a Century

 

 

BEST SCREENPLAY

Don DeLillo – Game 6

Jean-Pierre Melville, adapted from Joseph Kessel – Army of Shadows

Benoit Delepine and Gustave KervernAaltra

*Ryan Fleck and Ana Boden – Half Nelson

William Monahan – The Departed

Todd Field and Tom Perrotta, adapted from Tom Perrotta – Little Children

Alan Bennett – The History Boys

 

 

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY

*Emmanuel Lubezki – The New World (1) + Children of Men (2)

Mark Pin Bing Lee – Three Times

John Christian Rosenlund – Factotum

Lucca Bigazzi – The Family Friend

Yao Xiaofeng – Jasmine Women

Zhao Xiaoding – Curse of the Golden Flower

 

 

BEST ENSEMBLE ACTING

Game 6

*A Prairie Home Companion

Half Nelson     

Barrio Cuba

The Queen

The History Boys

 

 

BEST ART DIRECTION

The New World

The Promise

*Three Times

The Science of Sleep

Jasmine Women

Curse of the Golden Flower

 

           

BEST EDITING

Inside Man

Prairie Home Companion

*Army of Shadows

Half Nelson

Barrio Cuba

The Departed

Little Children

 

 

BEST COSTUMES

*The New World

The Illusionist

Jasmine Women

The Queen

Marie Antoinette

Curse of the Golden Flower

Dreamgirls

 

 

BEST ORIGINAL MUSIC

Paul Hepker, Mark Kilian, Vusi Mahlasela, and ZorlaTsotsi

Yo La Tengo – Old Joy (1) + Game 6 (2)

Philip Glass – The Illusionist (1) + Notes On a Scandal (2)

Kristen Asbjørnsen – Factotum

*Justin Hennard and Chris Keyland – Room

Hualampong Riddim – Invisible Waves

Alex Beaupain – Inside Paris (Dans Paris)