TOP TEN FILMS SEEN IN THE YEAR 2007
(Films not released or shown in Chicago until 2007)
1.) INLAND EMPIRE A 95
USA France Poland (179 mi) 2006 d: David Lynch
A woman in trouble
Vintage Lynch, a return to the eerie experimentation of ERASERHEAD (1977), complete with remarkable industrial sounds and Hitchcock-like orchestrations accompanying the grainy video visualization of lone characters walking up dark, winding staircases, through a neverending labyrinth of long hallways and doors, into a Donnie Darko-like TV set piece with characters wearing bunny suits and long ears, including an obnoxious laugh track, where we see a constant stream of distorted faces enlarged, stretched or pulled, also an obsession with various forms of light, from total darkness, to barely lit rooms, dim lamps, candles, cigarette lighters, to brightly lit streams of light which reveal an awesome power of their own, ending with one of the most brilliant end credit sequences ever filmed. One noticeable effect was a fidgety audience, where people constantly got up and down from their seats, making endless trips back and forth, in and out of the theater. Lynch’s first venture with digital video film, which by the way is not shot in ‘Scope, is largely plotless, but follows the synchronicity of dreams, many of which veer into nightmares, disturbing images that return to familiar surroundings with horrific results. Initially, the audience is privy to a series of images that are startling by the sheer design of the frame, by the washed out colors, and by an audacious oddness the defines the formal structure of the initial conversations, some of them absurdly funny, as if we are being told what’s about to happen by a strange Gypsy fortune teller (Grace Zabriskie) speaking in a thick accent as she unexpectedly visits her supposed neighbor, Laura Dern, in one of her multiple roles, making apocalyptic pronouncements about yesterday, today, and tomorrow, suggesting that by tomorrow things will not be the same.
Even earlier, in black and white images, we see a prostitute (Karolina Gruszka) with a client in a hotel room with their faces digitally blurred. Nothing of consequence happens, yet the girl becomes a central character of the film despite never leaving her room, as in tears, she proceeds to watch a television show of the Rabbits, which has a decidedly slower sense of time. The room of the set is similar to Dean Stockwell’s plainly designed room in BLUE VELVET (1986), where a bunny with a pink apron irons in the back, while two other bunnies sit on a sofa where the prevailing tone is oddness. This sequence was pulled from Lynch’s 2002 short film RABBITS and is fully integrated into the film. Much like the ear in BLUE VELVET, there seems to be multiple portals to other dimensions, creating a layered effect of overlapping realities, one of which is Gruszka, known only as the Lost Girl, apparently stuck in a waiting room.
Recalling a similar mood of the future co-mingling with the past, where time leaves a mark of scarred psychological isolation and exaggerated decay from Norma Desmond’s mansion in SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950), here our vantage point is from the opulence of another estate, where Dern, as has-been actress Nikki Grace, receives news that she’s been offered the lead role as Susan Blue in a hot-boiled romance film, On High In Blue Tomorrows, starring opposite Justin Theroux, a reputed womanizer, who is warned by Grace’s husband (Peter J. Lucas) to keep his distance from his vulnerable co-star, which, of course, falls on deaf ears. Almost immediately we learn the movie has a cursed history, as the initial film was scrapped after the leads were mysteriously murdered. The venerable Harry Dean Stanton, no less, provides comic relief on the set, and in the middle of an initial reading, the drama is so fierce that it supplants existing reality when Stanton hears a strange noise from the adjoining room, suggesting a shadowy presence lurking nearby that is then seen from multiple realities, one that is real, another that takes on the life of the movie, which is also viewed by the Lost Girl on television, who may in fact have morphed into the film she is watching. Grace becomes so wrapped up inside her character, we’re never again able to distinguish which altered state we are witnessing, as the imagined and the real merge into one, but we follow her throughout the film on her journey through this labyrynth of fragmented identity and lost souls, which includes a trip to the snowy streets of Poland and the interruption of a backyard barbeque by a strange concoction of Eastern European men who seem like they just walked off the set of a Béla Tarr movie, who then become interspersed throughout the film.
The initial humor gives way to an underworld of grim disconnection and fear, where Dern continues to find herself a stranger to the person she is playing, almost as if she is outside herself, continually trying to find a way back in, similar to the Lost Girl, whose fate seems to be linked to an unrealized outcome on the television screen. There are moments that repeat themselves, like the television Rabbits sequence, an alley behind a grocery store, an interrogation sequence with a brutalized Dern, which supposedly was the initial sequence written by Lynch for the film, and we often find ourselves in similar rooms, as if the subconscious is striving to push itself to the surface. Three of the most perfect realizations in the film are cued to musical sequences. The first involves several girls working as prostitutes who are seen in a moment of reprieve dancing to the music of Little Eva’s “Loco-Motion,” a joyous moment that provides a temporary uplift of spirit. The second is a hurried walk down Hollywood Boulevard by Dern to the enlivened rhythms of Beck’s “Black Tambourine,” moving through a maze of streetwalkers who may as well be the ghoulish silhouettes of dead or forgotten souls that Hollywood has discarded and left behind, as she fears for her life, certain that someone is out to kill her. The final is set to Nina Simone’s “Sinner Man,” a jazzy rendition that pulsates with a soulful sensuality as it plays over the end credits to the wondrous vibrancy of a jubilant group of dancers, which bookends a similarly dazzling opening credits dance sequence from MULHOLLAND DR. (2001).
Among her recognized roles, Dern plays a has-been Hollywood actress under pressure to revive her career, also an ordinary wife of a blue-collar Polish worker, and a Hollywood prostitute. One of the most beautiful aspects of the end, when she finally enters the room of the Polish prostitute who's been sitting in tears watching television since the beginning, who seems to have her life connected in some way to what Dern does, and in the end the two embrace, is that Dern has somehow released that woman from her fate, perhaps by killing her murderer, choosing a reality that does NOT include the victimization of prostitution, allowing her to return to her family at the end, and for Dern to return to the picture of innocence. Prostitution is certainly one fate that awaits fallen actresses that never make it in the business. The amusing breast sequence among prostitutes only accentuates artificial beauty, even artificially enhanced beauty, which contrasts mightily with the "sweetness" of Nina Simone over the end credits, and the discovery of real love.
Lacking the luscious beauty of MULHOLLAND DR, it would be hard to say one enjoys this as much, but it’s certainly a film that blows everything else out of the water in terms of its defiance of convention and its ambitious scope, a hypnotic free form stream-of-conscious statement that is at times relentlessly aggravating, strange, uncompromising, dazzlingly inventive, lurid, sexist, creepy, sadistic, baffling, mind-altering, brilliantly unsettling, mystifying, indifferent, languid, ambiguous, horrifying, and not like anything else except other Lynch films. There are obvious moments of brilliance, while at other times, we keep being pulled into a wearying darkness that saps our energy reserves with unending references to brutality and abuse. This film feels like a walk down memory lane, though it is never anything less than inventive, filled with superb Lynch imagery that may remind us of his other films, but it also paves a path for the implementation of experimental technique in a feature film, where plot and narrative are secondary to the overall artistic stylization, which always includes superb performances to match the power of the director’s vision. By plumbing the depths of Lynch’s own fertile imagination, which reimagines and reinvents with such ease, he is constantly challenging the audience’s ability to reawaken their own sense of consciousness.
2.) 4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS & 2 DAYS A 95
Romania (113 mi) 2007 ‘Scope d: Cristain Mungiu
A reflection of life in Romania under the Ceaucescu era, set in 1987, this is the story of a young girl’s attempts to obtain a cheap abortion on the black market, where every aspect of society is layered in corruption and lies, revealing a society where truth has little value, where learning to operate through the lies is like making your way through a minefield, where some lucky ones may get through, but only by accident. Meanwhile, many people’s lives are routinely trampled over by the societal indifference to other people’s problems. While it has a similar scenario as THE DEATH OF MR. LAZARESCU (2005), shot with a fluid in-your-face, hand-held camera, intensely following the lives of a few people over the course of a few hours, this actually has a greater dramatic impact and could easily be called one day in the life of a decent person in an indecent society. Many who watch this film will wonder what all the fuss is about, why it was awarded the Palme D’Or at Cannes as the Festival winner this year, believing it is a “good” but not a great film, as it can be pretty slow going for awhile, actually plodding along at times, where the final effect accumulates much of its power through misdirection, by “not” being what we expect. The girl who gets pregnant, Găbiţa (Laura Vasiliu) and her college dorm roommate Otilia (Anamaria Marinca), are two fairly ordinary girls who go about their business thinking this is like any other day. Only through the accumulation of detail, and one brilliant performance from the best friend do we come to appreciate just how many different levels this film is operating on, not the least of which is the abortion itself, which is captured in its entirety, seen as a despicable act that becomes a catalyst of something that takes on a life of its own in this film.
Personally, I was not won over by the drab, bleached out colors, or by the use of ‘Scope, which wasn’t used to any particular effect except perhaps in a dinner sequence, squeezing many people all into one shot, where we could follow several people’s gestures and body language all at the same time, actually becoming one of the turning points of the film, but other than that, the garbage and litter that seemed etched into every street scene was simply expanded to more of it. Most of the film takes place inside cramped rooms, occasionally opening to the world outside, but only briefly. What is actually probed is not any external condition that a camera could beautify, but the internalized feelings of one remarkable character, allowing the camera to linger and gaze, giving the audience the full impact of the moment, which happens repeatedly throughout the film. Oftentimes the other character isn’t even seen at all, only heard, but there are some extraordinary conversations in this film, all written by the director. Two in particular that stand out are what follows the hushed silence moments right after the abortionist exits and also the previously mentioned dinner sequence which was simply a phenomenal sequence, perfectly balancing both the interior and exterior worlds, rivaling some of Hou Hsiao-hsien’s signature shots in several of his films (the opening of FLOWERS OF SHANGHAI comes to mind). Without using a musical soundtrack, but presented through a grim, realist style, this is proported to be the first in a collection of Mungiu’s stories of life under Communism called “Tales from the Golden Age,” which may take us back to Kieslowski’s gritty, down to earth world of moral anxiety, where individual choices were forced up against the wall of authoritarian inflexibility, where all choices were impossible.
This film has a throbbing sense of dramatic urgency, where abortion is seen as not only emblematic of an entire ineffectual system where individualized needs are viewed as outlawed, subject to serious criminal penalties, where women are forced to expose and humiliate themselves to underhanded black market profiteers, but it becomes a full-fledged feminist treatise on the gulf that separates the sexes, dramatically revealing in excruciatingly real terms just how systematically entrenched in backwards thinking men (and many women) remain, still blindly incapable and perhaps unwilling to understand their own culpability in creating and maintaining insufferable conditions for humans to endure, where suppressing the rights of others is typically a product of historically ingrained masculine ideology.
3.) THE LIVES OF OTHERS A 95
Germany (137 mi) 2006 d: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
A brilliantly realized depiction of the East German Stasi secret police, set in the mid 1980’s when they were in full swing, casting their net of surveillance over the entire nation, sadistically turning neighbor against neighbor, all under the thumb of an information hungry police state, where all choices were impossible, where for an entire nation there was no option, as failure to cooperate with the authorities usually meant dire consequences. This is a revival of Kieslowski’s behind the iron curtain cinema of moral anxiety, and in many ways parallels his 1988 film, A SHORT FILM ABOUT LOVE (1988), as in this case, instead of an ordinary citizen spying on his attractive neighbor, it is one of the highest Stasi agents bugging the home apartment of one of the country’s leading playwrights, a man who flaunts western attire, interests, books and other periodicals, also a demure leading actress, so the police can only conclude he’s up to no good. In both cases, the voyeur becomes intoxicated with the subject, so much so that they act in a way that might otherwise be considered insane, as it’s beyond logic or reason, and might even be considered an act of love.
Ulrich Mühe, a man who was in real life married to a Stasi informer, who understands all too well what it feels like to live under constant police surveillance, plays Captain Gerd Wiesler, an Alec Guinness look-alike from DR. ZHIVAGO (1965), an unassuming man of quiet intelligence, a Party advocate who rarely speaks, but continually jots down what he sees in a small pocket notebook, the eyes and ears of the State. At each level above him are more despicable men, men enthralled with and corrupted by their own power, men who hold themselves above the laws of the nation, who would rather intimidate the entire population into blind obedience. Their systematic infiltration of the population is legendary, their interrogations ruthless, operating with 100,000 full-time employees, 200,000 informers, forcing each citizen to capitulate to the police one interrogation at a time. In the opening sequence, Wiesler demonstrates how he wears down his subjects, offering them no sleep, coldly and calculatingly waiting them out until their resistance is broken, then threatening their family or loved ones with arrest until they confess. Sebastian Koch is the East German playwright Georg Dreyman, “the only non-subversive playwright we have,” while Martina Gedeck is exquisite in the role of his girl friend, the nation’s leading actress, Christa-Maria Sieland, “the loveliest pearl of the G.D.R,” who unfortunately has an addiction to popping illegal pills. The head of the Stasi is forcing Christa to submit to weekly sessions of sex in exchange for allowing her to work, an artistic practice that is completely controlled by the State. It is their apartment that Wiesler bugs, sitting and listening and typing his reports on everything he hears.
Dreyman is connected to a community of other artists, many of whom have already defected to the West, which is the government’s greatest fear, which is why they keep such close tabs on them. Many have already been interrogated and imprisoned, leaving them with a bitter taste in their mouths, while others have been blacklisted and out of work for as long as a decade. The Stasi’s method is to imprison them indefinitely, but long enough so that they voluntarily never again contribute anything else in their chosen field. What Wiesler discovers, however, is that these artists are hiding nothing, exhibiting a rare openness in a society that thrives on secrets and covering up, discovering instead that it is his own superiors who have the suspect motives, which puts him in the same impossible position as the people he is spying on. This turns into a series of calculated risks, where each side realizes they’re being watched, but they have to decide how to act. When a blacklisted director who hasn’t worked in ten years finally hangs himself, Dreyman and Wiesler simultaneously commit to more drastic actions, beautifully rendered in a musical sequence where Dreyman plays a piece of piano music given to him by the director called “Sonata for a Good Man,” a piece written by the film’s musical composer, Gabriel Yared, which has a significant impact on Wiesler, who begins to identify with “the lives of others,” omitting significant details in his reports, as it’s hard for him to believe his government didn’t drive that man to the breaking point. Dreyman at one point is heard asking how anyone who has listened to this music, really listened to it, could ever think of it as anything bad. On several occasions Wiesler nearly blows his cover, one is a beautifully designed sequence in a bar which is one of the turning points in the film, as without ever coming out and actually saying so, he subtly persuades Christa to re-examine her weekly sessions with the Stasi superior, where she inquires into his motives, as he seems to know so much about her, questioning if he is a “good man?”
Beautifully written, mixing meticulous detail with intelligence and humor, where the tone and pacing of the film are perfectly matched, where the music does not overreach, yet is genuinely in synch with the mood of the film, where the ensemble cast is flawless, and where the urgency of the story starts to feel overwhelmingly personal after awhile. There’s another scene nearer the end where Christa is arrested and subject to interrogation, a scene of indescribable conflict and tension, where she identifies her interrogator as a friend from an earlier moment in the film, yet cannot reveal anything, where the interrogator himself is under observation, so both are placed in an impossible dilemma. This poignantly describes living under the thumb of relentless totalitarian psychological pressure, eloquently described in his book as The Captive Mind by Polish Nobel prize laureate Czeslaw Milosz, and the film never for a minute wavers in this regard, filled with small moments that are as revealing as the larger ones, which include a not so incidental reference to Communist Party Premiere Gorbachev, a man who simply walked away from a position of unlimited power, and a man who incidentally changed the entire culture of living under an authoritarian police state, and in doing so, changed the course of possibilities for others. It’s a powerful work for a first time filmmaker who also wrote the film, whose recollections include his mother being searched by the secret police as a young boy, which may help explain the dramatic impact this film reaches by the end, stunningly understated, yet precisely to the point.
4.) THE WIND THAT SHAKES THE BARLEY A- 94
Ireland Great Britain Germany Italy Spain (124 mi) d: Ken Loach
A film that’s bound to draw attention to itself, as it’s a film of ideas wrapped in the blood of brothers-in-arms and history, as well as a lump in your throat story by Paul Laverty that grabs the audience from the haunting opening moments and relentlessly never lets go. Following on the trail of John Ford’s THE INFORMER (1935) and Italian neorealists like Rossellini’s OPEN CITY (1945) or de Sica’s BICYCLE THIEF (1948), Loach is so superb at painting compassionate portraits of progressive realism, a wrenching view of ordinary people caught up in the turmoil of the times, using a fictionalized recreation of a moment in history that has profound implications on the world we live in today, creating a style of film that defines intensity. Set in Ireland in 1920, we see the armed to the teeth British Black and Tan soldiers not only harassing Irish youth, which might have been tolerated, but the mainstream professional class as well, bloodying a few noses, using a bullying style of thuggery that eventually leads to murder. At a local farmhouse that becomes a focal point of the film, Damien, Cillian Murphy, witnesses the murder of one of his friends for saying his name in Gaelic instead of English, and after watching the Black and Tans knock a train conductor senseless for refusing to allow soldiers to bring their weapons on the trains, he changes his plans from attending medical school in London and joins up with the Irish Republican Army where his brother Teddy, Padraic Delaney, is already active as a soldier. The story follows Damien’s path as he and his brother undergo the painful transition from civilian to soldier, where violence becomes their trademark, which leaves more than a scar in their anguished souls.
Much like Melville’s portrait of the French resistance in ARMY OF SHADOWS (1969), these Republicans face an impossible dilemma, as they’re being rounded up, tortured and killed, all graphically realized in a few short moments of the film, they’re left with a huge burden on their shoulders, where the freedom of the country lies in the hands of a bunch of poor, working class kids, an underfunded rag tag few, or they can face the humiliating alternative of living the rest of their lives under the brutal dictates of a British occupation. Loach has already shown us what the British can do, so what alternative do they have? In one of the more wrenching scenes of the film, they have to decide what to do when they discover the identity of an informer, a young kid they’ve known all their lives, as well as his family, whose real sin is he couldn’t endure the kind of torture the IRA was used to. What to do? Through a series of raids and ambushes, Damien develops the friendship of Dan, Liam Cunningham, and Sinead, Orla Fitzgerald, whose brother was killed earlier at her grandmother’s farmhouse, which comes into play again in another unforgettable scene when it is burned down by the Black and Tans, leaving Sinead beaten and bloodied. As we’re being drawn into this life or death intensity of an unstoppable mayhem and neverending revenge, a truce is declared. The Treaty of 1921 is signed by both the Irish and British, which leads to the withdrawal of the Black and Tan troops, a police force in the hands of the Irish, but the country will remain under the power of the British – the terms of peace.
Suddenly the film changes from the fight for freedom set in the vast green landscapes of the cloudy outdoors, beautifully captured by cinematographer Barry Ackroyd, to the cramped back rooms of a dingy building where a progressive political discussion ensues, the heart and soul of the picture, guys in caps and vests arguing vehemently with one another over the terms of the agreement, exploring questions of history and political experiences of the working class as if their lives depended on it, as some feel they are so close to driving the British out that they’d never forgive themselves if they stopped now, while others, overwhelmed by the rising body count, welcome the prospects of peace, believing there are no circumstances under which the British would ever actually leave, so withdrawing their troops is a good compromise. Damien and Teddy end up on opposite sides of the argument and both end up pursuing their goals in their own way, which only leads to disastrous results. The final shot at that same farmhouse, the setting where so much of the action occurs and a fitting metaphor for Ireland itself, is an extraordinary picture of hurt and sorrow, as one wonders how much more anguish that farmhouse can endure? The language of the film is in a thick Irish brogue, a good third of which is incomprehensible, and unlike a few other working class British films, there are no subtitles, which makes for a frustrating viewing, as what we can decipher is bold, brash, and at times poetic, so it might have helped, but this is one of Loach’s most powerful films, where the initial intensity never lags due to such a strong undercurrent of staggering realism.
5.) FAY GRIM A- 94
USA Germany (118 mi) 2006 d: Hal Hartley
Another one of those inexplicably chosen Todd Wagner and Mark Cuban productions, men with questionable artistic resumés financing legendary American indie-film director Hal Hartley in this deliriously upbeat film about, like INLAND EMPIRE’s tagline, a woman in trouble. Shot in New York, Paris, Berlin, and Istanbul, this film gives you no idea where it’s heading, even as it begins in the familiar neighborhood of Queens and extends outward to greater distances, eventually ending in the remote mindset of the entangled web of intrigue that resembles America’s current obsession with the murky underworld of terrorism. What Hartley does do, besides write his own film music which blends perfectly with the changeable mood of his films, is write some of the best dialogue in films today, and through the skills of Parker Posey, see THE HOUSE OF YES (1997), who provides a startlingly complex and risqué performance, he has crafted a wonderful balance of savage Team America-style subversive hilarity with the dramatic breadth of Posey’s ever changing persona where “she is not what she seems.” Everyone underestimates Parker Posey, critics and audiences alike, as do all the men in this film, with the possible exception of her own family, led by the cynical CIA foil Jeff Goldblum, who fast and furiously spurts out the latest Agency plans which continually turn on a dime based on a series of their own catastrophes. A comment on our modern day governmental quagmire you think? Possibly, but think again, as this film invariably spoofs spy thriller films, including the exaggerated use of giant titles cutting into the action reminding us just where we are in place and time, in case we forgot, while poking a little fun at Hartley’s own 1997 film HENRY FOOL, which he uses in the musical prelude and fugue variation, starting with a restatement of the theme, combining updated elements from that theme, and then breaking into a jazz riff that all but obliterates any resemblance to the original except Parker, who always works within the framework of that film, while everything around her changes. Lest we forget, Parker had a tiny role in HENRY FOOL, but made so much of her brief appearance that here it has expanded infinitely.
In a role resembling Gena Rowlands in GLORIA (1980), Parker makes a fashion statement as an ultra sophisticated woman dressed all in black whose composure is tested on every level, especially in a scene where she hides a cell phone set on vibrate in her pants. Opening at home, Fay (Posey) is called to school to meet with authorities after her 14-year old son (Liam Aiken) is caught with a small hand-cranked moviola that reveals pornographic material, a device that he recently received anonymously in the mail, a gift that keeps on giving as it’s mined for more comedic material throughout the film. “”It’s an orgy,” he matter-of-factly tells his mom when she peers into it. But all is set right in the world as he’s eventually expelled from school for getting a blowjob from two classmates, but not until this knowledge has been perfectly set up by a single shot of two short skirted girls silently staring down the school staircase at him, like hawks about to swoop down on their prey. But that’s the least of her problems, as waiting for her at home are a couple of CIA operatives led by motor-mouthed Goldblum who pesters her with questions about the supposed disappearance of her long lost husband, missing in action for the past seven years, the notorious conman Henry Fool (Thomas Jay Ryan), who they suggest may have dabbled in previous secret espionage missions involving governmental overthrows in Nicaragua and Chile, also rumored to have been seen in Israel, Iraq, China, and even the Vatican where the Pope threw a chair at him before disappearing into the friendly confines of the Middle East. Of course, this all feels ridiculous to Fay, but her son confirms his own 5-year old memories of his dad’s bedtime stories which he still vividly recalls were a whirlwind of political intrigue. All this leads to their report that her husband is dead, and there is a serious need to collect his previous series of notebooks, previously viewed as a series of deluded rantings, but now thought to be a secret code filled with potentially embarrassing international intelligence secrets. As his widow, they want to send her on a mission to Paris to collect some of the known missing material, a mission that should she choose to accept, she makes contingent upon their releasing her imprisoned brother, Nobel Prize poet laureate Simon Grim, the ever dour James Urbaniak who was found guilty of conspiring to falsify documents which led to Henry’s escape from the country. Fay’s overriding concern here is that her son needs a good home schoolteacher now that he’s been expelled from school and Simon is certainly up to the task.
This sends Fay unwittingly into the frenetically paced, cryptic world of international espionage, cover ups, false identities, wrong turns, double crosses, forged identities, and assassination attempts, as things don’t go precisely as planned, all set in motion by clues found in the moviola and the suddenly unraveling mysterious secret life of her missing husband, where bodies start piling up, but so does her collection of his missing notebooks. As she gets deeper involved in the Casablanca-like political charade, she discovers her husband may still be alive and meets a partner in crime, Elina Löwensohn, a Chechen punk rocker refugee on the run, “I’m not a spy! I’m a stewardess – sometimes a topless dancer!” who may have love connections to her husband, where the flashbacks of their hotel lovemaking reminds us of what an insidiously amoral creature Henry is, later describing himself to the Osama bin Laden-like terrorist and former friend who has been quietly keeping him under wraps: “It’s just the way I am, I gravitate to the lowest common denominator on principle.” But it’s Parker Posey, who begins the film as a distraught, deer-in-the-headlights mother, a clueless American abroad who sets the tone of the film by adapting to every situation presented to her, becoming ever more ballsy in her leggy slit skirt and high heeled boots, devising incredibly well-thought-out, on-the-spot strategies, planning harrowing escapes, making an eloquent plea for her husband’s life, adding real emotional weight to what might otherwise be seen as a GET SMART-style sideslapper comedy. And while this may be the funniest film seen all year, it’s also one of the smartest and best written, filled with highly sustained deadpan, yet always intelligent dialogue that audiences are simply not used to, shot through oblique angles by Sarah Cawley Cabiya that straighten out at the end, changing its tone in the final reel, giving the film a novel inventiveness, utilizing the continuing presence of quirky characters and what is easily the performance of the year from Posey as well, a criminally underused American indie-film icon who is simply phenomenal in the extension of her dramatic range, who couldn’t be more perfect in this film, whose bewildered poignancy in the final shot is nothing less than sublime.
6.) AFTER THE WEDDING A- 94
Denmark Sweden (120 mi) 2006 d: Susanne Biers
An intimate, wonderfully complex and compelling film style that from the outset paints a dazzling portrait of the rhythms of life in India, accentuated by hand held cinéma vérité camera techniques, immersing the viewer inside the noisy claustrophobic quarters of a slum orphanage greeted by eager, wide-eyed children whose circumstances define poverty and overpopulation, yet this vibrant colorful world is expressed with a sense of openness, where the rapidity of the cuts and the ever shifting camera movements help generate a natural sense of immediacy. Mads Mikkelsen plays Jacob, the quiet Western aide worker/teacher with a sympathetic yet expressionless face, who calmly provides a paternalistic influence over boys that were rescued from living on the street as child prostitutes, one of whom is an 8-year old he has been raising as his own. Ordered by his superiors to meet with a wealthy donor in Denmark who insists on making face to face contact with him, as the orphanage is on the verge of financial collapse, Jacob grudgingly returns to the land of his self-imposed exile for the past 20 years, and the contrast is amusingly evident in the sudden change in music, facial expressions of new European characters, the luxurious wealth on display and an endless amount of space that can be seen for miles. Bier’s restrained style draws us into the heart of a man that straddles both worlds through an extension of the Strindberg/Bergman dramatic school, where plumbing the depths of emotional turmoil is key, using highly skilled ensemble acting performances in a situation reminiscent of THE CELEBRATION (1996), where a large family gathering is rife for exposing carefully kept family secrets.
Jacob’s arrival in Denmark is something of a shock, feeling brutally wasteful after experiencing such a total immersion into third world conditions, where the tour of his hotel room reveals an outrageously luxurious penthouse suite, with modern electronic gadgets all run by remotes, and an accompanying balcony that on clear days offers a view of Sweden, perhaps a humorous reference to the criminally exiled, binocular-wielding Swedish neurosurgeon (“Danish scum!”) who fondly views his homeland off in the distance from von Trier’s THE KINGDOM (1994). This obscene offering of corporate extravagance is provided by Jørgen (Rolf Lassgård), a brazenly successful and domineering millionaire, a Shakespearean physically imposing Lear-like presence whose rags-to-riches story defines him as a veritable modern day king, a corporate CEO who is used to controlling the levers of power. He interrupts Jacob’s presentation to say he’s heard enough, sarcastically calling him an “angry young man,” though apparently impressed, but has overriding time concerns as his daughter is getting married over the weekend and invites Jacob. His arrival to the wedding sets the scene for the remainder of the film, all captured in a series of carefully choreographed furtive glances, highlighted by close ups of eyes much like Bresson uses brief images of feet, as Jacob can’t take his eyes off Jørgen’s wife Helena (Sidse Babett Knudson), a younger, sensually beautiful woman who is caught staring back both at the church wedding and at the family gala as she mills through the crowd. Revelations ensue like shots of adrenaline, where Jacob soon discovers Helena is his old girl friend that he ran away from years ago causing him to live in the relative obscurity of India and he may actually be the father of the bride, their daughter Anna (Stine Fischer Christensen).
After carefully constructing Jørgen’s world, represented by the lavish festivities conducted around the huge dimensions of his immense country estate, where he is seen as a Godfather-like presence who loves to play with and spoil his children, Bier then proceeds to dismantle it piece by piece before our eyes, exposing the family secrets behind the veneer of wealth and success, unraveling the intricate world of the patriarch, his wife, his daughter, a man who is connected to them both, revealed in a series of quick emotional revelations and outbursts that are quite simply devastating, using a highly personalized, almost portraiture camera style that allows each to reflect on the sudden shift of their rapidly changing fates and the ensuing psychological discomfort that leaves an almost elegiac tone of anguish. A brilliantly executed walk through a theatrical minefield of elaborately concealed emotional time bombs just waiting to be set off, this turns out to be one of the more enjoyable films of the year. Coming out of the Danish ultra realist Dogma school of filmmaking, Bier has refined her earlier style to allow the occasional use of lighting or music to grace the screen, which adds a degree of complexity to the film by greatly expanding the breadth of the interior landscape. Written by Bier and co-writer Anders Thomas Jensen, there’s an inventive command of the medium that’s reflective in the highly original look of the film, featuring precise film composition, a wonderful crisp pace in the beguiling manner in which information is disseminated, and in the searing dramatic tone that is essential throughout. This is a thoughtful always engaging film that challenges the viewer, beautifully underscored by a warm poetic musical elegance from Johan Söderqvist.
7.) ONCE A- 94
Ireland (86 mi) 2006 d: John Carney
Probably the best double feature I’ve seen in years, seeing ONCE immediately following Hal Hartley’s deliriously upbeat FAY GRIM, shot in two weeks for under $150,000, this is one of those small films that works, generating such superlative reviews that by the time you get into the theater, you half expect it to fall apart at some point, while the other half, of course, hopes it’s everything it’s cracked up to be. Fortunately, this film doesn’t need to grab you by the throat to pull you in, it does so instantly with the emotional sincerity of the music, which always sounds so heartening, even as it’s describing hearts that are breaking, beautifully shot by Tim Fleming who consistently captures the immediacy of the moment and the freewheeling swagger of the two wonderfully refreshing lead characters, making this one of the more unique twists on an age old love story. Known only as the Guy and the Girl, he’s a thirtyish street singer that repairs Hoover vacuum cleaners at home with his dad, Glen Hansard from the Irish rock group The Frames and from THE COMMITMENTS (1991), a guy whose songs bear a strange similarity to the optimism and melodic simplicity of Cat Stevens when he was Cat Stevens, while she, Markéta Irglová, is a younger Czech émigré who sells magazines and flowers on the street, living with her mother and small daughter, a girl with classical piano training who bears a strange resemblance to the recently deceased British actress Katrin Cartlidge, as she combines intelligence and a very forward curiosity with an eloquent stage presence, and at only age 17 during the filming, she reminds us of just how glorious it is to be young. Written and directed by John Carney, who was a bass player in both The Frames and THE COMMITMENTS, this film makes no attempt to overreach, but does an excellent job of living within its small means by creating two well-defined characters living on the fringe of working class Dublin, both with the love of music in common, and with the same loss of an affectionate “other.” The Guy realizes early in the film his mistake at coming on to the Girl, and his face tells all, as he knows he screwed up the instant he violated this fragile trust these two developed on the street when after hearing him sing she was amazed at the profound seriousness of one of his songs, knowing he loved someone, as she could sense an intimate outpouring of personal confession, which he found exasperatingly obtrusive, finding it incredible and somewhat off-putting that this young stranger could see right through to his soul.
Much like the poetic realism of Jacques Demy, who compiled a string of musicals in the decade of the 1960’s that remain at the pinnacle of the art form, this film has more than a passing similarity to THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG (1964), immersing itself in the energetic spontaneity of the streets from which these characters spring, where their first sparks of love make the audience sense they are made for each other, soul mates, inseparable, perhaps projecting this chemistry onto the troubled relationships of the unseen “others” in their lives, even as they go their separate ways, much like the audience senses the misdirected love in CHERBOURG. But establishing realism within the world they live in is essential, as from within this carefully defined lack of pretentiousness comes the sincerity of the music, which leads us ever further into the lives of these two young lovers, who mesh together so well in one of the opening scenes in the back of a music store where they basically put a song together for the very first time which is nothing less than revelatory, it’s simply movie magic. Her soft piano and vocal harmony are so understated, yet so pure, it’s simply heartbreaking hearing the song “Falling Slowly” developing onscreen for the very first time: “I don’t know you/but I want you/all the more for that,” as is her response to his request for lyrics to one of his melodies, where she scampers out into the night in her slippers and pajamas to the local music store where she can play his CD of the recorded music, returning later humming this song under her breath, completely oblivious to the outside world, allowing the audience to share in her joy at hearing her lyrics for the very first time accompanied by her pitch perfect harmonies. It would be so easy for scenes like this to disintegrate into artificial grandstanding, but they are charmingly contained entirely within the musical structure. By this time, it’s hard not to sense that we’re experiencing a different kind of film, a tone poem of young love that relishes intricate harmonies and the adrenal rush of waiting for the next chorus.
Much of this film was born as well in Paul Thomas Anderson’s MAGNOLIA (1999), reflective of the exquisite montage use in that film of the Aimee Mann song “Save Me,” spread throughout several characters which adds a hyper-realistic quality to the emotional content of the song. In ONCE, this mesmerizing quality extends throughout the entire film. Here the guy’s reborn love is expressed in flashback images from a projected video of his distant love in London, who is actually in real life the girl friend of the director, but it’s a beautiful collage of mixed emotions, where he longs for the love that he’s actually experiencing again, rekindled by the crazy directness of the girl, who kindly defers all matters of love, as she has a husband of her own living abroad who hasn’t been particularly helpful. Instead, she’s visited each day by three burly guys next door who promptly sit on the sofa and watch her TV, the only one in the building, known in the credits as the men watching TV. Before the guy leaves for London, he decides to cut a record with the girl and a few other street musicians, which is basically the end third of the film, watching them pique the interest of the sound engineer who comes to realize he is witnessing a unique recording session filled with undiscovered talent. The strength of the session is the blending of textures and tones, the unabashed joy and genuine passion that comes from Hansard’s vocals, and the gorgeous melodic refrains, always underscored by the girl’s talent for harmony. The personalized intimacy of the characters is perfectly realized in their joining forces and coming together musically. After immersing themselves in the cramped quarters of a recording session all weekend, there’s a wonderfully sweet release that is simplicity itself, where the music continues over the end credits, but where we know the real story is only getting started, this was just the beginning, a brief moment, once.
8.) BAMAKO A- 94
aka: The Court
France Mali USA (115 mi) 2006 d: Abderrahane Sissako
A continuation of themes hinted at and explored in the hauntingly poetic WAITING FOR HAPPINESS (2002), yet enunciated loudly and clearly in this film for anyone who still has doubts about the effects of globalization in Africa. Much like Kiarostami’s THE TASTE OF CHERRY (1997) without the optimistic epilogue, there seems to be a predominate theme of death that infiltrates the mood of this film, a scourge that is ravaging the continent, beginning with a local photographer’s admission that death is the only reality, the only truth worth paying attention to. And indeed, this film divides the world into the haves and the have nots, those that have the luxury to choose how to live their lives, and those that have no choices whatsoever offered to them from birth due to the overwhelming poverty that afflicts every aspect of their lives, where death is a constant. Sissako has a wonderful eye for poetic detail, and for offering visual metaphors that border on the surreal, examining the rhythm and motions of life taking place in impoverished societies. This film is set in the capital city of Bamako, Mali, one of the poorest nations on earth, where a small, fictionalized public war crimes tribunal is taking place in an open outdoor courtyard where the continent of Africa is providing a series of witnesses charging the World Bank, the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund, and the G8 nations that historically stole what they could from African nations through colonialist exploitation, replaced today by another system that remains even more deeply entrenched through the huge debts these impoverished nations supposedly owe to these international institutions, ranging from 40 to 60% of the nation’s total income. Not only is this an impossible burden to meet, but due to the overwhelming drain to the already fragile economies, nations are unable to provide basic human services, like education or health care needs, which have become privatized under the crippling reform demands of the International Monetary Fund, thus preventing the local population from utilizing these services. The consequence of this so-called global modernization is a declining standard of living and an illiterate society, as no one can afford to attend school in the poorest nations, and zero health care, as without money, patients aren’t being treated, so the poorest patients are left to die, many in huge numbers due to potentially lethal sanitary conditions that are causing Middle Age style epidemics across the continent.
What’s different about this film, somewhat reminiscent of Ousmane Sembene’s revealing 2004 film MOOLAADÉ, featuring one of the same strong, outspoken actresses, Maimouna Hélène Diarra, is the neverending trial dialogue, which is broadcast on the radio throughout the town, which even the population turns off, as it all begins to sound the same after awhile. Unfortunately, this film is more didactic and may spend too much time and focus on the words, much of which are incendiary and purposeful, as this is a blistering indictment of capitalism not seen since Raoul Peck’s 2002 Haitian film PROFIT AND NOTHING BUT! OR IMPOLITE THOUGHTS ON THE CLASS STRUGGLE, a Dostoevskian “Notes from the Underground” rant that is filled with contempt, claiming capitalism has already won, making he and his third world brethren invisible, out of sight, out of mind, where the wretched conditions of others are no longer a concern to people from wealthy nations, or Herbert Sauper’s 2004 film DARWIN’S NIGHTMARE, a film that reveals in horribly graphic detail the consequences left behind by capitalism, how the unscathed haves take the food supply from the region, in this case huge Tanzanian perch, all of which is exported to Europe and Russia, priced out of the affordable range of local villagers, the have nots who have to fight for the rotting scraps left behind in garbage heaps to stay alive. While those last two are documentary examinations, this is a fictionalized film rendered with a poetic as well as politicized purpose. There is an amusing allegorical film within the film, a fill-in for a botched Malian TV broadcast, as we see small children adoring an American Sergio Leone-style western movie called DEATH IN TIMBUKTU featuring Danny Glover, Palestinian filmmaker Elia Suleiman, and the director himself as one of the cowboys, where a small African village falls under a torrent of bullets from disinterested outsiders. How entrenched are we in our own complacency?
Like WAITING FOR HAPPINESS, there are beautifully rendered life portraits that are interspersed throughout the film that represent various forms of life in the region. Even as the trial is taking place, where one by one witnesses come forward to speak, a writer, a professor, a farmer, a refugee, or we hear the arguments of the lawyers on each side, 30 or 40 people are seated in folding chairs while people around them who live nearby quietly go about their business gathering water, doing the laundry, but also keeping an eye on the proceedings, occasionally interjecting, as goats and chickens roam the premises. One particularly attractive woman (Aïssa Maïga) is a singer, opening and closing the film in a live performance that has a powerful impact, again untranslated, but she has to travel to distant towns to make a living, leaving her husband behind to care for their young daughter, a role reversal that devastates his sense of manhood. The women are always working, even the young girls are caring for the young babies, giving them a bath while the older women carry water or die fabrics which they hang on a line to dry, sometimes creating brilliant fashion designs, while the unemployed men sit around in two’s or threes doing nothing, perhaps playing dominoes, much like Arthur Miller’s recollection in his play A View from the Bridge of penniless Sicilian men after the war in the late 40’s and early 50’s standing around the public square with no hope of a future, leading many to crime or illegal immigration to America. One witness recounts his survival story of an incredibly dangerous journey traveling through the endless Saharan landscape with a group in search of a friendly border, most of whom are left behind to die alone in the overpowering natural elements, now ghosts in his memory that will forever haunt him.
Despite a reliance on dialogue, it is fitting that the wordless or untranslated sequences hold the most power. Initially a former teacher introduces himself at the podium, but then stands silently, offering no testimony at all other than a reverential silence. The proceedings are interrupted on another occasion by a wedding procession that passes by, where the jubilant voices are heard singing, rising above the dire mood of the trial, a noticeable contrast from the subject at hand. One haunting image that may as well be a metaphor for the film itself is the stunning anguish and simplicity of Aïssa Maïga fighting through the tears in her performance, weeping not just for herself it seems, but for the entire African continent. And despite the compelling arguments, where the final verbal arguments are particularly effective, it is the strong African voice of a griot or storyteller who has the most mesmerizing effect, as his untranslated chant is a picture of words and great passion, as his African essence, a whole history of everything that came before, is at stake, and he boldly and defiantly leaves his imprint on the entire process, completely capturing the attention of everyone in the village, which comes to a complete stop in respect for his offerings. It’s a stunning moment. Some in the audience were complaining that there were no subtitles, but that was the point. In a largely illiterate society, it’s not just the words that matter, it’s the emphasis on what’s expressed that says it all, which may as well be a stand-in for the filmmaker himself who has crafted an eloquently stylized poetic vision giving voice to those that are largely ignored or forgotten by the rest of the world.
9.) TALK TO ME A- 94
USA (118 mi) 2007 ‘Scope d: Kasi Lemmons
One of the more hilarious and entertaining films of the year, a film DREAMGIRLS (2006) tried to be, but couldn’t pull off despite two award winning performances by Jennifer Hudson and Eddie Murphy, as the showcased musical numbers smothered the lame attempts at social commentary. In this film, it’s one of the better films out there on authentically capturing the times with Don Cheadle in a 60’s afro recreating the “Keep it real” ghetto persona of DC radio legend Petey Greene and his off-the-charts fly girl doing her own exaggerated Foxey Brown imitation, Taraji P. Henson (from HUSTLE AND FLOW ) strutting her funky sexual stuff following him stride for stride, who open the film with a memorable conjugal prison visit, preceded by Greene as a raucous yet highly observant prison deejay playing James Brown’s “This is a Man’s World,” accompanied by his “Wake up, Goddamn it!” (decades before 1989 when Spike Lee stole a similar riff for the opening of DO THE RIGHT THING) profane prison take on events inside and what it takes to scratch “another day off the wall.” While this is another one of those Hollywood trips down memory lane where they love to bring people back to life onscreen, usually with award winning success, think Idi Amin, Queen Elizabeth, June Carter Cash, Truman Capote, Ray Charles, Aileen Wuornos, all best actor/actress winners in recent years, but Kasi Lemmons has more in mind, as she uses Cheadle’s brilliant “voice of the streets” performance to illuminate the period of the late 60’s, a time when people actually had something to say, an era of lost heroes, JFK, Bobby, Malcom X, Martin Luther King Jr, all shot down for speaking their minds. This film highlights a lesser known personality who had a significant impact in the DC area, not only as an ex-con who became a legendary radio personality, but as a social activist and a Lenny Bruce-style advocate of telling the truth through free speech.
This could also be seen as another one of those buddy films, as it follows the interrelation of two men over the span of their lives, Petey Greene and Dewey Hughes (Chiwetel Ejiofor) a radio executive at WOA-AM, the man who hired Greene, one a loud, spontaneous, free-wheeling ex-con while the other is a quieter, more carefully composed speaker who has the look of a corporate lawyer, who on the surface couldn’t be more different, yet both made their mark in radio history. The story was actually written in part by Hughes’s son, Michael Genet, who along with fellow screenwriter Rick Famuyiwa, took their time to get this story right, accentuated throughout by the perfect musical choices of the day from Terence Blanchard, who has also scored about a dozen Spike Lee films. Several key scenes come to mind, none funnier than Greene’s jaw dropping entrance to the WOA studio in search of a job, who along with his girl, Vernell, simply blow everyone’s mind with their outlandish display of verve and theatrical funk on parade, another at Greene’s favorite pool hall, where he and Hughes compete in a colorful high stakes game of 9-ball in his attempt to land a job at the studio, but it’s more a defining lesson on blackness. But easily the turning point of the film is the seminal moment in 1968 when Martin Luther King was assassinated, when street rage was at its angriest, as cities across America burned in a fury of unspoken agony, where street credibility was needed to help calm the quelling storm outside, easily Greene’s finest moment, where fellow coworkers in the studio actually applauded the depths of sincerity elicited in his radio performance relating the ethical thoughts of King’s protests against the unethical turbulent violence exploding on the streets, an extended sequence that culminates with Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come,” a superior moment in the film as the song has a personal history with both men, but it’s given even greater significance cast against the almost dreamlike Armageddon that captures the utter chaos of the moment. Anyone who’s ever lived through that moment realizes the delicate hand that is taking us back through that monumental precipice in history.
Hughes has such faith in Greene that he becomes his manager, where he does his own impassioned, profanity-laced stand up comedy act as well as hosting his own TV show, mimicking the infamous image of Black Panther Minister of Defense Huey P. Newton sitting in that high-backed wicker chair, humorously talking about life from the black perspective, which ultimately leads to a shot on Johnny Carson, the pinnacle of success for a rising young comic, which leads to another one of those riveting, stand out scenes. But the two strong willed men clash over what constitutes success, as Greene is out of the Sweet Sweetback school of blackness, never trusting the Man, never wanting to become so successful that you become the Man, while Hughes wants to win over all of America, and following in Greene’s footsteps, becomes a successful deejay to do it, ultimately buying the radio station himself, the first of many successful business ventures. There’s a poignant scene from Vernell who comes to visit Hughes late in the film, this time without any of the flamboyant outfits, playing it completely straight, letting him know that Greene is seriously ill. It’s a touching moment in an unconventional film that takes seriously its role of representing the times, where music played a much more culturally defining role commenting on the social fabric of the Civil Rights and Vietnam era with all the color and the activism that brought people together. There was a time when all that mattered in our lives, when it was significant to hear a guy on the radio telling people to just “Be yourself” when the right leaning serve and protect laws of the land seemed to suggest otherwise.
10.) SILENT LIGHT A- 94
Mexico France Netherlands (144 mi) 2007 ‘Scope d: Carlos Reygadas
Another challenging film that requires a great deal of patience, an artistic leap for this director, who has previously been unhesitant to show graphic sexual detail, to the extreme in some instances, but tones it down here to reflect the subject matter. Shot in ‘Scope, there’s a Bruno Dumont sense of detail and severity on people’s faces, which is shown with complete detachment. Without any backstory to describe where we are, opening in the cosmos before settling down to a time-lapsed sunrise, using long static shots with plenty of sounds of cows, we follow the minimalist rhythms of what appears to be a well run farm, with automatic milking machines for the cows where an older couple can easily complete their rounds within a few minutes of real time, and we are introduced to roads cutting through a vast flat landscape of dried up corn fields and various people, most always surrounded by large numbers of well behaved children. A clue is the prayerful introduction to breakfast, as the parents as well as their family of six children sit silently in their own meditations for what feels like several minutes before the father concludes the silence with an Amen. With such abject politeness, the women wearing scarves over their heads, and everyone speaking in the same Germanic sounding dialect, we are as far removed from the bleak Sátántangó farm collective as we could possibly be, as everything here appears to be in proper order.
It turns out we are in a Mennonite community near Chihuahua in northern Mexico, where the family father Johan comes to visit his own father (a farmer and preacher), explaining that he has found a new love, but needs his father’s help to know what to do. But when the father (a preacher) starts preaching about the work of the devil, Johan cuts him off, “Talk to me like a father, not a preacher.” Words are exchanged, but certainly no recommendations or judgments, just simple words of kindness. Johan has been upfront with his wife about this all along, but he fears if he doesn’t make the right decision, he may lose them both, believing he alone is responsible for what has happened. Both appear to be kind-hearted men, strong and resolute, who are not used to having to face this kind of dilemma. This kind of thing just isn’t in their creed. The family goes about their business, as before, where the near angelic nature of the children is simply flabbergasting, as it would be near impossible to have to explain immoral conduct to those cherubic faces. But in a discussion between the husband and the wife, when Johan can’t give up this other woman, the reaction of his wife turns sour, believing she may be the one who will be excluded from her own children, which couldn’t be a worse fate. Explaining peace may be more important than love, thoughts must run through her head like all the hard work, all that she’s endured, everything she’s ever lived or sacrificed for, despite her morally appropriate conduct, if God’s fate is that she loses her own children, it feels like a mortal blow in her eyes. Shortly afterwards, she is pronounced dead.
The black dresses and bonnets return as the community makes ready for the funeral, where young and old sit on benches sipping drinks in the room outside where the body is being prepared for viewing. Again, the innocence of children provides an extraordinary power to these situations, almost as if they are the eyes and ears of God himself. They bear witness to the lives that their families lead. Johan is a wreck and can barely contain his grief, while his children are still curious about the afterlife, whether or not their mother is at peace. From the outside of the house, the camera peers into the window as men move the body inside, where a reflection of the cornfields behind them is seen, as if the body is already being returned to earth simply by this double-sided reflection. In an interior static shot of the deceased, shot in a glowing white light, candles on each side, nothing more, an image of simplicity itself, enhanced by the spartan use of space, where there is nothing in the frame that is without purpose or that doesn’t need to be there, and where there couldn’t be a more devout image of holiness.
This image replicates that of a certain Danish master, Carl Dreyer, who explored similar territory in ORDET (1955). Dreyer believed human nature has a factor which has yet to be located, that notices activity outside our natural world. Our accepted habits unconsciously prevent us from seeing. Our sensibility has been so atrophied that we can’t see outside our own system – like religion – where people believe in their idea of faith only as an idea, while the meaning has been lost, and must be demonstrated through their actions. Only when we suspend the laws of nature do we accept or recognize something outside our experience. One of the factors inspiring Dreyer was Einstein’s theory of relativity. Einstein could not scientifically explain actions which he had no knowledge how to explain. For Dreyer, there are forces outside our sphere of knowledge that have an influence over us. With this film, Reygadas, like Dreyer before him, explores those unfathomable forces utilizing a similar austere style and has actually found a unique modern day community that views faith much like it was originally intended. The results are astonishing as the final time-lapsed sunset image returns the film back into the cosmos.
11.) ACROSS THE UNIVERSE A- 94
USA (131 mi) 2007 ‘Scope d: Julie Taymor
Following months of viewing different versions of what were arguably the best trailers of the year, this is a glowing, sumptuous experience of exhilaration and sheer inventiveness, dazzling from the opening shot, beautifully extending the boundaries of cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel and the use of ‘Scope, Taymor’s ACROSS THE UNIVERSE Beatlefest is easily her best film effort so far, as the anything goes, imaginary world of a musical only enhances her ability to shine. For the first half of this film, it’s probably the best film seen all year, but by the time Bono makes his Kesey connection, “You’re either on the bus or off the bus,” and Eddie Izzard as Mr. Kite takes us through his loopy surrealistic world of chaotic disorder, the entrance of which looks like something out of the COLOSSUS OF RHODES (1961), the emotional bottom falls out of the experience as people’s lives start falling apart. In its place are overly simplistic renditions of the times, perhaps top heavy with typical imagery of police confrontations with Vietnam war demonstrators, never really getting under the surface of any of the leading players, nothing that can pull the audience into their world, which the first half does so well for at least a half dozen characters.
Opening dramatically in song, John Lennon’s highly personalized, almost hushed lyrics from “Girl,” where the singing is done by the actor’s themselves, the film distinguishes itself by adhering to character references from Beatles songs and allowing the lyrics to tell the story of a jubilant and sad encounter between a boy and a girl from opposite ends of the globe, Jim Sturgess as Jude, a somewhat cherubic, baby-faced kid who’s had to work in the shipping yards to make ends meet for his single mom, and Evan Rachel Wood as Lucy, the pampered, free spirited suburban girl who’s had everything handed to her, who has her life in front of her but hasn’t a clue what to do with it. When her high school boy friend is drafted, they vow, as lovers do, to write and wait for one another, while on the other side of the world Jude is promising his girl friend the same thing, using the same lyrics from “Hold Me Tight” to project similar worlds, despite the differing social status.
Jude is off to America in search of his missing father, an American GI who was stationed in Liverpool during the war, a guy who never knew he existed and is none too pleased at meeting him, while Lucy has to contend with the bizarre and crazy antics of her brother, Joe Anderson as Max, a wild-eyed kid who drops out of school with no real ambition other than a Quixote-like quest for discovery. Max runs into Jude and invites him home for a rancorous Thanksgiving dinner with the folks in suburbia, becoming best friends forever, and this before he realizes Lucy is his sister, who immediately captures his heart. Before you can blink, Max and Jude run off to Greenwich Village to discover the world, renting a room from “Sexy Sadie,” played by Dana Fuchs looking ever so much like Drea de Matteo, a hard drinking singer who slinks her way into the sultry world of Janis Joplin, a rock icon whose career was anything but sultry. But easily the most outstanding early sequence features an unnamed Asian high school cheerleader (TV Carpio as Prudence, we later learn) who is out practicing on the football field at the same time as the players, who starts singing this incredibly sad and mournful, startlingly off-kilter rendition of “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” which expresses her alienation to the in-crowd, as cheerleaders and football players flirt and carry on while football players fling one another across the screen with great abandon while we assume she’s got a thing for one of the players. Next thing you know, she’s out on the road hitching a ride to who knows where, amusingly re-entering the other storyline by the spoken phrase from Jude, “She came in through the bathroom window.” Her lesbian intentions only become clear later when Prudence literally needs to be coaxed out of the closet, where they all gather outside her locked door and urge her gently and sweetly in song: “Dear Prudence, won’t you come out and play.” Very inventive.
This kind of lyrical context is beautifully interwoven throughout the entire film, some hilarious, others heartbreaking, like when a little black kid from Detroit breaks into "Let It Be" while riots in the street are breaking out all around, a sequence that continues with the boisterous support of an Aretha Franklin-like all-black choir that takes the song into magical heights, but ending with a funeral scene of that same little boy in a coffin as "he" continues singing the song (in spirit) alone. Taymor, as usual, receives highly incendiary negative criticism, some even calling this the worst film of the year (Village Voice critic Robert Wilonsky, the stand in for Ebert on Ebert & Roeper), but this is really not due to her skills as a filmmaker, but her degree of purpose, as she uses a take-no-prisoners approach. She refuses to downplay or compromise her vision, trusting her artistic impulses, creating some of the more vividly imaginative sequences shown onscreen this year. The early build up of innocence and hope is simply unsurpassed, but there is a subsequent letdown exploring the darkness of the Vietnam era, taking a great big dive into 60's demonstration overkill, where unfortunately it at times veers into laughable stereotypical territory. The two leads and the entire cast are terrific, and there's some brilliant cameo appearances, one by Joe Cocker in multiple roles, another by Selma Hayek whose multiple images as a army hospital nurse with a syringe in her hand reappear like the actor Deep Roy in CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY (2005) to the tune of “Happiness Is a Warm Gun,” yet another by Bono as Ken Kesey who swaggeringly sings “I Am a Walrus,” which looked like a laugh riot to play, each role drawing a smile. All that was missing were appearances by Paul and Yoko Ono making up.
Lucy receives a jolt of reality when her guy gets killed in Vietnam and decides to join her brother and Jude in New York for awhile, adding to this mix Martin Luther McCoy, a Jimi Hendrix-like guitar phenom named Jo-Jo whose younger brother died in the Detroit riots earlier in the film, who also arrives in New York and answers an ad for Sadie’s lead guitarist to the intoxicating sounds of “Come Together,” all moving in under the same roof of what feels like spirited bohemian underachievers. But just as things start to jell for everyone, with Lucy and Jude entangled in a myriad of surreal love fantasies, perhaps expressed best when she sings to herself a hauntingly quiet rendition of “If I Fell” before their first kiss, the same goes for Sadie and Jo-Jo with their boisterous Ike and Tina onstage chemistry with “Why Don’t We Do It In the Road,” while brother Max receives his draft induction notice, and next thing you know, posters on the wall of the draft board literally come alive pointing their finger at Max exclaiming “I Want You, I Want You So Bad,” and he’s off to Vietnam (“She’s So Heavy”) in one of the wilder choreographed numbers mixed with a highly stylized surrealistic flourish that expresses how the world is tilted on edge.
Jude becomes a very talented artist but remains noncommittal on politics (“Nothing’s gonna change my world”), while Lucy desperately joins the anti-war movement creating a rift that becomes the film’s biggest contrivance, as she is never once convincing as a so-called radical turned “revolutionary” (so Jude can snidely sing the song “Revolution”) and crudely dismisses Jude’s obvious talents as nothing more than doodles and cartoons just as the screen comes alive with his blazing red images of bleeding strawberries, more war imagery, to the massive sounds of “Strawberry Fields Forever.” The two become separated, as does Prudence, as does Sadie and her guitar man, while newsreel war reports saturate the television screens to the divisive and horribly screeching sounds of “Helter Skelter” sung by Sadie to a raucous crowd of war resisters getting their heads bashed in as they are arrested in mass numbers. Turbulence defines the times that are a-changin’. There’s a wonderfully quiet moment of reflection afterwards with Lucy alone on a dock singing “Blackbird,” which reintroduces the key that holds this universe together. Perhaps there’s a few too many police in riot gear, which gives the impression kids were under siege, which of course they were, but that introduces a highly divisive political ingredient to this film that remains a contentious issue even after all these years and obviously influences how an audience views and/or accepts this manufactured landscape, an unending psychedelic phantasmagoria of color saturated, magnificently designed moving set pieces that illustrate what amounts to a simple 60’s love story, which is also a metaphor about kids yearning to be free and a country that still barely recognizes the voices of its own children.
12.) COLOSSAL YOUTH (Juventude em Marcha) A- 94
Portugal France Switzerland (155 mi) 2006 d: Pedro Costa
An intensely challenging film with very little action, or even movement, most of it shot in near darkness with just the briefest glimpse of light, so that half of a face or just a portion of the screen is in the light, the rest remains engulfed in shadow or darkness, using a slow, funereal pace, beautifully shot by the filmmaker himself as well as cinematographer Leonardo Simões. Set in the dilapidated slums of a condemned Kieslowski-esque Fontaínhas housing project just outside Lisbon, we follow a group of people originally from the Cape Verde islands, now seemingly isolated, poor, and alone. Even their language is a mix that is not really Portuguese or a Cape Verdian dialect, but seems of a different world, which perfectly captures the essence of the people we see, who appear shadowy, ghost-like, as if they are apparitions outside the human realm. People here appear to be already dead and move at the pace of the undead, zombie-like, as if they’re barely alive. There’s an artificialized style throughout, where each frame is carefully composed maximizing the artistic, photogenic impact of every shot, usually starting with still figures, a man sitting outside a housing complex in a red chair, eventually rising to go inside, or a pitch black room with a small square of light, where a man instinctively moves toward the light, or opening in the golden hues of a dark stairway, where we hear voices from people’s lives offscreen, where a shadowy figure emerges from a silhouette in the darkness.
Ventura is the lead character, a former construction worker who describes the past in much the same manner as the present, making them indistinguishable, where he is seen from time to time wearing a head bandage from a scaffold injury that occurred sometime in the unknowable past, now a retired, severe looking, sixtyish black man dressed in a black suit wearing a white shirt throughout the film, who complains that his wife (or someone who resembled her, he’s really not sure) has left him after cutting him in a fight and destroying all his belongings (which are seen flung out a window in the opening scene), so he spends his time making the rounds of all the people he knows, calling many of them his “children,” a vague label that is vociferously denied by one but routinely accepted by others. Ventura’s visits include conversations that may at times be hauntingly poetic, but always remain overwhelmingly detached, people who have lost touch with the world, where Ventura resembles, though in a completely non-religious context, the role of a traveling priest listening to the various confessions of a hard to reach underclass who offer extended monologues, creating familiar scenes of stylized tableaux, revisiting the same people in the exact same rooms throughout the film, elevating their sense of dignity and worth by allowing intimate moments to be shared, giving voice to the voiceless though utilization of repetition and pace that leaves one drained and exhausted after awhile, reminiscent of the scene in Tarkovsky’s NOSTALGHIA (1983) where a man tries to walk the length of a dry swimming pool with a lit candle, returning to the beginning each time it goes out, starting all over again numerous times, where the length of the scene keeps getting extended and seems to drag on forever in one of the more exasperating sequences ever created. There is a recurring theme of a letter he has composed and memorized in an attempt to get his wife back, where the verses of the letter are repeated several times, each with a slightly varying ending and tone, always suggestive of yearning for and an absence of love. The film is so dreamlike that it barely resembles reality, instead it has a highly choreographed, stagy feel to it, yet the carefully constructed darkened images appear designed to capture the last flicker of light before being completely extinguished.
One of the themes is relocation, destruction of the old, construction of the new, as Ventura reluctantly makes the transition to leave his dilapidated slum world for a brand new “white room,” inventing the number of people in his family to increase the size of the room, thinking all his family can live there, much like a church constructs a building hoping to fill it with parishioners, yet Ventura’s white room remains strangely empty. There’s a beautiful moment midway through the film when Ventura plays a record, where all of a sudden there’s this vibrant energy in the air that wasn’t there before, where we are reminded just for a moment of something enjoyably familiar, before that too disappears, leaving us to rediscover life in the vacuum left in its wake. Purging the familiar, the recognizable from the film creates an eerie film where life as we know it has been stripped away, depriving the audience of any comfort factor other than the continually interesting film composition, which resembles the darkness in David Lynch’s ERASERHEAD, yet this is filmed in color, where most of the color has been drained or bleached out of the frame. Even if much of the film is exasperating, Costa has found an original method to imprint his vision into our subconscious, literally keeping the mood of his images in our heads long after the film is over. Add to that the somber reality of the people who inhabit this human purgatory, where much of what we remember, particularly enhanced by the music that plays over the end credits, feels like an elegy or a requiem, providing an almost classical sense to this highly individualized and in many ways unpleasant journey.
13.) NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN A- 94
USA (122 mi) 2007 ‘Scope d: Joel and Ethan Coen
Not as much fun as BLOOD SIMPLE (1984), which was far more amusing, but this is tense, brilliantly paced and has the same spare tone with a sense of age weariness, people who are tired of it all, set in motion by an introductory monologue from Tommie Lee Jones who describes himself as coming from a generation of lawmen, many of whom never used to wear a gun, finding its use more of a bother than useful. Lawmen use their keen wits, their knowledge of the arid landscape of West Texas, and their ability to size up a situation and the people who tend to get themselves in trouble. He recalls a young 14-year old boy who murdered his girlfriend, not for any motive really other than to kill her, claiming he always knew this would happen sooner or later, offering not an ounce of remorse. This opens up the floodgates for the modern portrait of the cold hearted men who inhabit the landscape today. Adapting the even bleaker Cormac McCarthy novel, the Coens veer into rural Texas much like they did Minnesota in FARGO (1996), and while it hasn’t the profound wit or charm of Frances McDormand’s brilliant pregnant detective, it does have the same love for detail, the dialect and phrases that just roll off the tongue, the sage loners that live in abject poverty in order to maintain their independence, or kind hearted strangers or store clerks who maintain a sense of decency in their everyday lives even as the world around them seems to have moments when it just goes to hell. This film is about the arrival of just that kind of hell and the impact it has on a few people’s lives that are unfortunate enough to feel its presence.
The story is simple enough, Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin) is a hunter stalking antelope in the isolation of the desert who stumbles across the remains of a shootout, with dead bodies and even attack dogs strewn across the landscape, many still holding their weapons guarding a stash of heroin, where following the traces of blood he’s able to track a lone man sitting under a shade tree with a briefcase full of money (supposedly $2 million), which he retrieves from a bloody, lifeless corpse. This sets into motion a series of events all spelling more trouble, renegade Mexicans who wish to steal the drugs, Javier Bardem as Anton Chigurh, a psychopathic killer who’s sent to recover the money, a man whose weapon of choice is lugging around tanks of compressed air normally used to instantly slaughter livestock, Woody Harrelson as a cocky hired gun who’s needed to reel in the out of control killer, and Tommie Lee Jones as Sheriff Bell, a man who knows Llewellyn Moss and his wife Carla (Kelly Macdonald), whose job it seems is to assess the damage littered all over the western parts of Texas. For some reason, Moss seems to think he can get away with stealing the loot, despite the rising body count that suggests otherwise, as his life and his family are swarmed upon from all directions. There’s some light-hearted dialogue that connects all this together, the best coming from the Tommie Lee Jones, one of the best scene stealers in the business, especially on his own home turf of Texas, but mostly we dread the inevitable, as the awesome destruction of the killer is like a cyclone laying waste to everything it touches for miles. Yet unlike other psychopaths, this man is not stewing in his own venom, filled with anxious, profanity-laden episodes that reveal some hidden childhood character flaw, this man never raises his voice or shows any sense of urgency. He always threatens by tracking his prey with such measured and calm proficiency that he enjoys watching the other guy sweat, continually applying more heat to the already sweltering southwestern landscape.
While the film is an excellent character study, interweaving the perspective of various points of view, it’s also a concise, well written thriller that thrives in wordless tension, always leading with a sense of foreboding where the law remains two steps behind, and where prevailing wisdom comes during the pauses in the action, sometimes over a cup of coffee while reading the morning paper, or two sheriffs having a meal together finding just the right tone , where it’s hard to define when this overriding sense of apathy began to take hold of us, where the horrors even in our own midst are disregarded as easily as spitting out our morning toothpaste. As the body count rises, so does our declining interest to even witness the fatalities, as we already know what to expect, and a killer with this degree of precision does not disappoint. This growing weariness with death is not conducive to the typical Coen brother’s wise-cracking amusement with genre mixing, even when laced with clever dialogue, making this profusely uncomfortable, just as it must have been for the lawmen whose job it was to clean up this kind of sordid mess. The point being: it’s never cleaned up. We just don’t have to look at it when someone else does the dirty work for us. This kind of killing is all too antiseptic, out of sight out of mind, like wars fought overseas that leave a bitter aftertaste only when it affects someone inside your own family, but it’s peculiar when other families next door or across the street remain entirely unscathed. How are people to address one another in those circumstances? How does one show respect or try to put it all behind us? Instead, there seems to be no escape, where the prevailing sense of apathy only increases the horror of the events, as if disregarding the dead is to our own detriment, a parallel to what we know about history and the current slaughter of innocents abroad, which we as a nation continue to ignore at our own peril.
14.) MANUFACTURED LANDSCAPES A- 93
Canada (90 mi) 2006 d: Jennifer Baichwal
From the outset, this is a film that made me more inquisitive about both artists featured in the making of this film. Canadian filmmaker Jennifer Baichwal has set a high standard for the manner in which she chooses to document artists, developing a personal relationship with Moroccan recluse Paul Bowles ahead of time so that a writer with a reputation for stubborn reticence becomes a fascinating interview in LET IT COME DOWN: THE LIFE OF PAUL BOWLES (1998), or painstakingly allowing both critics and admirers to chime in on her exploration of poverty through the works of Appalachian photographer Shelby Lee Adams in THE TRUE MEANING OF PICTURES: SHELBY LEE ADAM’S APPALACHIA (2002), so that in both films Baichwal’s goal has been defined by a near scientific objectivity, a straightforward presentation of the material, allowing the audience a chance to make their own judgments. Similarly, Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky has taken a fascination with the world’s industrial dumping grounds, capturing startling images by framing the subject in such a way that it fills the entire picture, maximizing its impact as it seemingly extends into the infinite [web site]. Earlier in his life, Burtynsky worked in gold mines and auto assembly plants and reportedly took a wrong turn on a rural Pennsylvania road, discovering a huge coal pit that left such a mesmerizing yet horrible impression on him that he was inspired to make his life’s work photographing similar panoramic vistas, making ugliness look stunningly beautiful, raising questions about the aesthetics of debris, known as “the industrial sublime.”
Something of a follow up to Michael Glawogger’s WORKING MAN’S DEATH (2005), even sharing a similar location, a Bangladesh shipyard that more accurately resembles a shipping graveyard, a place that survives on scrap metal with workers stripping old oil tankers piece by piece, which is contrasted against another immense Chinese shipyard that is constructing as many as 100 ships, or Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s OUR DAILY BREAD (2005), a wordless yet stark examination of depersonalization through degrading and monotonous work that someone necessarily endures for the sake of the food we eat. In this film, Baichwal and cinematographer Peter Mettler follow photographer Edward Burtynsky to China and Bangladesh, adding real life context to what he so eloquently captures in still shots, recording a heightened imbalance of nature, showing how modern technology is so rapidly reconfiguring the shape of our landscape, both internally and externally. It’s an interesting project, as a photographer’s eye is initially struck by specific subjects, such as rock quarries, strip mines, waste dumping grounds, recycled tires, computers, or ship parts, the mass employment of factory workers, the displacement of humans by gigantic technological projects that are considered vital to modern advancement, then the filmmaker follows up on that idea, extending the boundaries of the photographs, showing how people are dwarfed when placed alongside these massive projects which reduce humans to just a speck on the landscape.
Resembling the enormity of the final image from RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981), we get an eyeful from the opening seven or eight minute shot, a slow tracking shot down a side aisle of a huge Chinese iron assembly plant that reveals endless rows of bright yellow-shirted factory workers sitting at their work stations performing a synchronized monotony of repetitious motions, many of whom seem relieved to stop and stare at the camera’s obvious intrusion, where the accumulation of ever-expanding space defies all known concepts of rationality, finally settling on a single worker who is fast asleep. This indoor shot is immediately followed by another similarly choreographed outdoor shot, where the entire work force of yellow-clad workers is lined up in perfectly organized columns directly outside the yellow colored factory buildings, where the road is lined with yellow flags, creating a surrealist glimpse of human progress. We see other factories with workers uniformly wearing pink, with all the women in identical blue headscarves. Burtynsky himself, in extracts from his Chinese lectures, tells us that China recycles 50% of the world’s computer parts, a task that is illegal in the West due to the toxic effects of what’s called E-waste, that a recognizable odor permeates for miles before entering a town that performs this task, where the workers wear no protective gear as they hammer apart computers and heat circuit boards in order to separate the chemical compounds, a process that may have the effect of poisoning the workers as well as the neighboring water supplies, routinely throwing the waste into nearby streams. Though it’s been illegal to import electronic waste into China since 2000, Baichwal’s camera captures tons of debris being unloaded at local shipping ports in giant containers mostly from Europe, Japan, and the United States, which are then trucked to the nearby recycling centers.
Sometimes a single photo or a slow wordless pan will introduce a segment, perhaps the voice of a worker describing their task, but the film is notable for its hauntingly beautiful original music from Dan Driscoll and an extraordinary industrial sound design from David Rose and Roland Schlimme (who doubles as the film editor), providing an ethereal calm to the already provocative subject matter. Some of the more devastating footage is showing the impact of the Three Gorges Dam, the world’s largest hydroelectric engineering project on the Yangtze River, more than 50 % bigger than any other dam in the world, where some of the most fertile farmlands in the country had to be destroyed and where over a million people have been displaced to make room for this mammoth construction project, seen here being paid by the government to remove their homes brick by brick so that they could rebuild their new homes elsewhere using the same materials.
Much of the film was shot in China, home to over a billion people, as it’s a country undergoing a colossal shift in priorities. Under Mao, the country was 90% agricultural and 10% urban, while today it is 30% agricultural and 70% urban, changing the landscape with unprecedented speed. Nothing reflects that change any more than the modernization of Shanghai which has nearly completely demolished its old city, making way for a skyline of new high rises in the name of progress. Baichwal finds one old woman who refused to be moved, despite the threats of broken bones, whose lone one room shanty remains standing, as the modern building complexes were forced to build around her. In a scene reminiscent of Kurosawa’s HIGH AND LOW (1963), there is an opulent estate next to this woman’s home with giant glass windows revealing sweeping panoramic vistas of modern Shanghai, a scene that couldn’t possibly provide more contrast between an old woman’s humble origins and an extreme flaunting of wealth. The woman residing in the modernized apartment is the epitome of China’s new woman, who bears a striking movie star resemblance to Gong Li (who was credited with thanks at the end of the film), welcoming the camera into her home, graciously offering her Jackie Kennedy-like tour, proudly showing us her library of classical Chinese books, where any one room is bigger than the old woman’s entire house. By the end of the film, after seeing the damaging environmental impact of industrial waste on such a large scale, one couldn’t be sure if this one person’s arrogant display of opulence in Shanghai wasn’t even more egregiously horrifying, as her wealth, and others like her, is likely acquired by selfishly turning a blind eye to the community of others. Isn’t that the same arrogance that demolishes old cities, destroys natural farmlands, displaces ordinary people, and leaves behind a trail of toxic debris for others to clean up after them?
15.) MARGOT AT THE WEDDING A- 93
USA (92 mi) 2007 d: Noah Baumbach
While SQUID AND THE WHALE (2005) featured a repugnant father (Jeff Daniels), this film features one of the more revolting mothers in Nicole Kidman’s neurotically smug Margot, who perhaps best represents what years of therapy gone wrong can do. Honest to the point of being compulsive, where she can’t help herself from making snide, overly critical remarks, she’s willing to destroy all those around her in the name of truth and honesty, used like a bulldozer to clear the landscape around her, where her primary purpose appears to be to deflect personal criticism away from herself, completely oblivious to the ramifications of her actions. She’s brazenly horrible, where her overly grumpy nature around others, exacerbated by the everpresent glasses of wine, lead to despicable family betrayals which she reveals like open sores through her successful short stories. Of primary interest, due to her literary acclaim, she is actually considered the breadwinner and the voice of reason and success in the family, even though she hasn’t spoken to her sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh) in years. They are burying the hatchet, however, as Pauline announces she’s about to be married to the mildly artistic but perennially unemployed Malcolm (Jack Black), who Margot immediately detests and undermines. More friction ensues. Shot in underlit darkened exteriors by Harris Savides, this is a savagely dark comedy with only brief traces of humor, which is instead dominated by a foul odor that expresses itself in strange ways, the unwanted string of personal critiques coming from Margot, her son Claude’s (Zane Pais) entrance into puberty and the first emergence of body odor, the strange and cruel neighbors next door who want them to chop down an immense tree that borders their property, claiming the roots are rotting, poisoning their plants, and the disappearance of a well liked family dog.
The film opens with Margot and Claude taking a train from New York to the Hamptons, which may as well be a journey back to her childhood, as Pauline inherited their mother’s summer home, so it brings back a flood of memories and stored up resentments which come to a head almost immediately, where Margot assumes her domineering role as the older sister, showing her true colors when she instantly reveals information told to her in confidence that Pauline is pregnant and intentionally hadn’t told anyone else, as she didn’t want people to believe that’s why she was marrying Malcolm. Pauline’s daughter Ingrid (Flora Cross) immediately becomes concerned wondering why her mother didn’t tell her, as well as Malcolm who’s somewhat ambivalent about becoming a father, believing this may be the stage in life where he’s not the most important person in the world anymore. This story reflects a growing unease that people have with each another, revealing how people unhesitatingly poison the waters of the world around them, like opening the floodgates of the obnoxious behavior displayed on opinion-oriented talk radio, disparaging everyone around them while at the same time they somehow attempt to balance a sense of trust and personal honesty with their friends and family, and in this case an all but doomed impending marriage. Somehow, the more they try to make it work, the worse it gets.
While this film has a feeling of incompleteness with so much background information left out of the film, a bit like entering in midair and having to figure out how to fly, but what it does show in sharply defined characters is revealed in intimate detail, sparing nothing, in a scathing portrait of a dysfunctional family behaving like they’ve always done, which is tear each other to shreds. This is a no holds barred indictment of suburban hypocrisy, people who use honesty as a weapon to hold others at bay, which gives them a phony sense of superiority. What’s unique here is that such self-absorbed adults are behaving so wretchedly inappropriately in front of their own children. Claude especially is a quietly sensitive kid, played with a beautiful sense of authenticity by Pais, but he’s subject to constant critiques from his mother even over the smallest things, where every detail of his life comes under neverending scrutiny, yet he’s attached to her and loves her, even if she doesn’t know how to love him back, telling him that when he was a baby, she wouldn’t allow anyone else to hold him. “I think that was a mistake.” Despite the horrid things Margot says and does, Pauline is basically a forgiving soul and her maternal instincts are more on the mark. When the inevitable dust up with Margot reaches volatile proportions, the audience is surprised with how quickly Pauline’s anger subsides and her more easy going personality takes center stage. Jennifer Jason Leigh is luminous in this role, yet her character has a surprising passivity, where her low key nature allows her sister (and others) to trample all over her again, yet she’s stunningly appealing displaying such an open vulnerability. A unique and refreshingly daring work, always smart and articulate, all the performances feel pitch perfect in this small incendiary chamber drama, like an off-stage Broadway production made on a miniscule budget, offering a great deal more freedom of expression, more bang for your buck, where we may remain haunted afterwards by the wrenchingly expressed unpleasantness of these troubled souls.
Viggo Mortensen – Eastern Promises
Casey Affleck – The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (1) + Gone Baby Gone (2)
*Javier Bardem – No Country for Old Men
Sam Riley – Control
Phillip Seymour Hoffman – Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (1) + The Savages (2) + (supporting actor) Charlie Wilson’s War (3)
Kurt Russell – Grindhouse
Chris Cooper – Breach
Michael Shannon – Bug
Parker Posey – Fay Grim (1) + Broken English (2)
*Anamaria Marinca – 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days
Isabelle Carré – Anna M.
Nicole Kidman – Margot at the Wedding
Ellen Page – Juno
Laura Dern – INLAND EMPIRE
Julie Christie – Away from Her
Tang Wei – Lust, Caution
BEST SUPP ACTOR
Ben Foster – Alpha Dog (1) + 3:10 to Yuma (2)
*John Carroll Lynch – Zodiac (1) + Things We Lost in the Fire (2)
Hal Holbrook – Into the Wild
Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet – Love Songs
Rolf Lassgård – After the Wedding
Martin Huba – I Served the King of England
Robert Downey Jr. – Zodiac
Max von Sydow – The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
BEST SUPP ACTRESS
*Amy Ryan – Gone Baby Gone (1) + Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2)
Eugenia Yuan – Choking Man
Cate Blanchett – I’m Not There
Taraji P. Henson – Talk to Me
Tilda Swinton – Michael Clayton
Lili Taylor – Starting Out in the Evening
Jennifer Jason Leigh – Margot at the Wedding
Kristen Thomson – Away from Her
David Cronenberg Canada Eastern Promises
David Lynch USA INLAND EMPIRE
*Cristian Mungiu Romania 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days
Joel and Ethan Coen USA No Country for Old Men
Ken Loach Ireland Great Britain The Wind That Shakes the Barley
Susanne Bier Denmark After the Wedding
Sidney Lumet USA Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead
Carlos Reygadas Mexico Silent Light
Hal Hartley USA Fay Grim
*Diablo Cody – Juno
Joel and Ethan Coen, adapted from Cormac McCarthy – No Country for Old Men
Hal Hartley – Fay Grim
Susanne Bier and Anders Thomas Jensen – After the Wedding
Noah Baumbach – Margot at the Wedding
Matt Greenhalgh, adapted from Deborah Curtis – Control
Todd Haynes and Oren Moverman – I’m Not There
Roger Deakins – The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (1) + No Country for Old Men (2)
Bruno Delbonnel – Across the Universe
Martin Ruhe – Control
*Alexis Zabe – Silent Light
Frederick Elmes – The Namesake
John Christian Rosenlund – The Bothersome Man
Sean Kirby – Zoo
Rodrigo Prieto – Lust, Caution
BEST ENSEMBLE ACTING
*No Country for Old Men
Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead
The Wind That Shakes the Barley
After the Wedding
Margot at the Wedding
BEST ART DIRECTION
*Across the Universe
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
Into the Wild
The Bothersome Man
We Own the Night
No Country for Old Men
The Wind That Shakes the Barley
After the Wedding
4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days
Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead
Perfume: The Story of a Murderer
Talk to Me
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Across the Universe
BEST ORIGINAL MUSIC
*Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová – Once
Koichi Shimizu and Hualampong Riddim – Ploy
DJ Nitin Sawhney – The Namesake
Johan Söderqvist – After the Wedding
Carter Burwell – Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (1) + No Country for Old Men (2)
Alexandre Desplat – Lust, Caution
Arvo Pärt and Andrei Dergachyov – The Banishment
Constance Lee Camille – Flight of the Red Balloon
The Cats of Mirikitani
The Forest for the Trees
Into Great Silence
The Trials of Darryl Hunt