TOP TEN FILMS SEEN IN THE YEAR 2008
(Films not released or shown in Chicago until 2008)
These are not films to build a consensus on, but instead may be “out there” to some extent, not like experimental or avant garde, instead reflecting a novelty of style or bold imagination that may not appeal to everyone, but these are films that consistently spoke to me long after I left the theater, as they obviously offered something that I value or find rare in movies today. Some may believe rating Tarsem and Garrel so highly is ludicrous, as many find their films pretentious of the first order, but these films spoke to me in ways others didn’t. I’m not suggesting these films are better, as some took several years to even get here, but this year I had more fun with some of the best movies this year, a rarity for me, usually preferring emotionally devastating dramatic heft. That for me is usually a delightfully cleansing or purifying experience – think listening to Bach’s St Matthew’s Passion, or all of his Preludes and Fugues, Pt’s 1 and 2 from start to finish. However there’s something strangely comforting experiencing the depths of anguish and despair in a movie theater, a kind of parallel universe to one’s real life where we rarely handle ourselves with such grace or eloquence. But I digress, not suggesting that drama has been uprooted, the point being there’s a more playful spirit at work this year. Interesting that so many of these films (7 in the Top Ten) were actually released elsewhere much earlier than this year.
1.) THERE WILL BE BLOOD
USA (158 mi) 2007 ‘Scope d: Paul Thomas Anderson
A big, sprawling epic movie that works as a treatise on capitalism and ambition, on the compulsive drive to make money, where eventually greed becomes the singular driving force, there’s an emotional disconnection from this film that remains hard to describe, that may be due to a screen full of despicable characters, but there’s a palpable force pushing us away from them throughout this film, perhaps the feeling is one of inherent dislike and distrust. These are not characters we can easily put our arms around and embrace. Like John Wayne’s crude frontiersman Ethan Edwards in THE SEARCHERS (1956), this is as raw and ugly a portrait of the personification of evil as American filmgoers have seen for quite some time, an example of one of the seven deadly sins exhibited through rapacious land and money-grabbing. Similar to Terence Malick changing the overall tone of James Jones’s popular war novel The Thin Red Line, actually rewriting the entire dialogue to become an ensemble piece of interior voices, Anderson remains faithful to the first half of Upton Sinclair’s 1927 novel Oil, a cautionary capitalist warning about the perils of greed published just before the historic stock market crash, but invents a new second half, avoiding any overt political reference while matching an overwhelmingly political tone from the original book to reflect the amoralism of the Bush years, the idea of wealth being the power shield behind which unmentionable crimes are committed. Anderson's film is simply a dramatic recreation of what's already happened before our very eyes on the world stage.
While the film defies categorization by writing an epic, near 3-hour film without a single likeable character, there are other major artistic contributions, as it’s beautifully shot in ‘Scope by Robert Elswit, capturing the stark emptiness of the endless Texas landscapes near Marfa, the identical location of GIANT (1956), also featuring a dazzlingly inventive soundtrack from Radiohead member Jonny Greenwood, much of which has a pulsating rhythmic drive of unsettled psychological anxiety. From the outset, Daniel Day Lewis seems to have forged a pact with what lies underground, a Mephistophelian deal with the devil where he will pay any terrible price in order to take freely whatever he wants from beneath the earth. Like a grizzled prospector from THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE (1948), the film opens with a man working alone in a darkened mine, chipping away at what he hopes will be silver. After a dynamite blast reveals his treasure, he slips on a fragile wooden step and falls down into the shaft, breaking his leg. He’s fortunate to get away so easily, as he crawls into town and stakes his claim. Barely noticeable, what’s interesting here is that for the first 15 minutes or so, the story has been advanced without a single word being spoken. Set during a time period of 1898 to 1927, this film is set to coincide with the era of silent films, so the beginning is an interesting homage to the period, while also reflecting a monetary and industrial shift from mining silver to crude oil, which becomes the new gold standard out West. When Daniel Day Lewis finally opens his mouth and introduces himself, I couldn’t help but think of Mick Jagger’s words to Sympathy for the Devil.
Please allow me to introduce myself, I'm a man of wealth and taste.
I've been around for long, long years I've stolen many a man's soul and faith.
I was around when Jesus Christ had His moments of doubt and pain.
I made damn sure that Pilate washed his hands and sealed his fate.
Pleased to meet you, hope you guess my name, but what's puzzling you,
is the nature of my game.
Lewis may as well be a similar charlatan, ingratiatingly introducing himself as an oil man and a family man, a man that can be trusted, but he’s a snake oil salesman introducing himself as Daniel Plainview, a name that has a multitude of metaphoric ramifications – all of them misleading, but the most interesting is the name of Daniel, taken from the book in the Old Testament which means “Judged by God.” At his side is a young boy he calls his son, H.W. Plainview (Dillon Freasier) but he’s simply a child who’s father died in a mining accident that Plainview decided to raise as his own – another falsehood. Yet initially, there’s a good deal of sympathy for this Plainview character, as he’s obviously worked hard and sacrificed in order to put himself in a position where he can stand in front of a community of dirt poor California farmers and ask for the oil rights to their land, expecting to get it, and he does. He comes off as a sound businessman whose shrewdness is being in the right place at the right time. Yet he’s still floundering, an oilman who’s used to as many disappointments as successes, who understands perfectly well how a calculated risk can be exploited by others for profit. Then Paul Dano introduces himself as Paul, the name of one of the Apostles, the only one who never met Jesus, yet he was the one who witnessed the vision of His resurrection, so perhaps wields greater influence in Christian theology. For a small finder’s fee of $500 dollars, Paul introduces Daniel to the area just outside his father’s barren goat farm where oil is literally spilling out onto the land. What happens next is history. Daniel Plainview becomes a very rich man. By 1910, the state of California produced 70% of the world’s oil. Times have changed, but California continues to reflect the immense gulf depicted in John Steinbeck novels between the poorest workers who continue to toil for some of the richest business operators in the world.
Paul Dano has a dual role, as he also plays Eli, a name that means “the highest” in Yiddish, which is a stunning eye-opener, as he is the identical twin brother of Paul, a young man who has the calling, who weasels a deal out of Plainview to build him a church, with the promise of more money to follow. Eli wishes to bless his oil wells so that neighbors might associate him with the prominent signs of economic revitalization, but is rudely shunned by Plainview, who comes to one of his services which is threadbare country fundamentalism forecasting the doom of Revelations, where he witnesses a religious exorcism, calling it “one hell of a show.” But unfortunate accidents seem to go hand in hand with success, accidents that Eli preaches are the wrath of God, believing they could have been prevented if more of the workers came to receive his services instead of spending their spare time drinking and carousing. This clearly gets under Plainview’s craw, as he wants nothing standing in the way of his workers and his business operations. He bullies and intimidates Eli, whose sin seems to be that he is as conniving and unscrupulous as Plainview himself, a doppelganger, perhaps a mirror image of himself working a different angle. This film reveals some of the accidents that interrupt the road to progress, each a grotesque horror story in their own right. One of the most visually explosive scenes in the film, one with Revelations apocalyptic proportions is an uncontrolled oil well that catches on fire, where the initial blast is so violent that H.W. is thrown off his feet and permanently loses his hearing, which is also one of the pivotal scenes in the film, as all Plainview seems to care about is the oil under the ground, chortling in his own joy, completely immune to the consequences of mishaps as he gleefully sends in dynamiters, where only the force of yet another explosion will cap the well.
Plainview ruthlessly sends his son away in an angry act of deceit, believing his disability is unacceptable out in the open plains where he refuses to become a laughing stock or allow others to exploit his son’s condition as a sign of weakness. In time, Plainview builds an empire, but his eccentricities become more apparent, especially in a scene where he stands down a rival’s business proposition with a merciless threat to cut his competitor’s throat, another apt metaphor. When a man professing to be his long lost brother arrives on the scene, Plainview is obviously distrustful and openly suspicious, but he curiously opens up to this man revealing his most intimate thoughts: "There are times when I look at people and I see nothing worth liking. I want no one else to succeed. I hate most people.” This moment is beyond strange or socially awkward, the magnitude of this man’s contempt borders on megalomania to the point of sheer lawlessness. The wealthier he becomes, the more his humanity is sucked right out of him, becoming an alcoholic recluse retreating into the isolation of his wealth, a fortress protecting him from the world outside that matters little to him or not at all, filled with what he repugnantly calls “these people.”
Anderson titillates the audience throughout with this feeling of enormity, this epic feel that something big is happening, which is intentionally meant to offset the director's intent to focus more and more on the internalized dynamic of the Plainview character, continually making the film smaller and smaller as the character grows more and more despicable. Daniel Day Lewis saves his best for last, as by the end, he is an abomination, as merciless a creature as ever walked the face of the earth, a hideous mutation of THE GREAT DICTATOR (1940) who thinks money gives him the right to be above the law, that the rest of the world can go to hell, that he can do anything to anyone for any reason that pleases him. The final scene is very much in the Stanley Kubrick manner, as all bets are off, Day Lewis is finally free of any and all restraint, and he turns into Jack Nicholson in THE SHINING (1980), only much much worse, as he's a rich and powerful man, so he can get away with anything. With drool literally spilling from his mouth, man regresses to the Stone Age where once he crosses the line of lawlessness and criminality and gets away with it, what's to stop him from developing an unquenchable thirst for blood and power? The final sequence only punctuates what Plainview got away with earlier. The game is over. The deal with the devil is done. Still chortling, his earthly soul has been completely snatched away from him at last, leaving him a staggering fortune, but also soulless and alone. Unlike MAGNOLIA (1999), there are no emotionally transcendent revelations where the film simply soars into a previously unexplored stratosphere. Instead, this is a more traditionally grounded, classically made film featuring a gigantic bravura performance from Daniel Day Lewis, literally one for the ages, as powerful a performance as many of us will likely see in our lifetimes, featuring a horrifying descent into abject amoralism, an uncompromising, startlingly bleak reflection of our times.
2.) THE FALL
India Great Britain USA (117 mi) 2006 d: Tarsem Singh
Tarsem feels like a distant relative, perhaps the black sheep, of the Julie Taymor family, as no one else comes close to capturing such undisputedly bold imagery in films today. Reminiscent of Orson Welles carrying a visualization for OTHELLO (1952) in his head for years, filming only when the money was there, this film was largely financed by several millions of the director’s own money while shooting in over twenty-five different countries over the course of four years. To say that this is a personal project is an understatement, as the sheer look of this film is so magisterial that one must believe it is timeless. Already two years old, it is hard to fathom how a film like this runs into difficulty getting distributed as the artistry involved is nothing less than magnificent. This is no ordinary story, as the entire globe appears to have been utilized in some fashion in the making of this highly inventive film, adapted from an otherwise obscure Bulgarian film YO HO HO (1981) directed by Zako Keskija, which has a similar storyline about a developing friendship in a hospital ward of an injured 10-year old boy with a broken arm and an actor who has suffered a severe spinal injury, where the hospital staff become participants in an imagined pirate story that holds the boy captivated, written by Valeri Petrov (storyline here: full summary, see a review here: Gotterdammerung [Branislav L. Slantchev]). The director and young actor won awards at the Moscow Film festival, so it’s only appropriate that THE FALL premiered in Russia January 3, 2008 more than twenty-five years later with an outrageously adapted cinematic vision. This film is a combination of Chinese costume drama, the most colorful on the planet, with an action adventure story right out of the classic Hollywood mode, but with an international cast, giving it a non-distinct flavor. Somewhat reminiscent of Guillermo del Toro’s PAN’S LABYRINTH (2006), with so much of what we see here set in a child’s imagination reacting to a story narrated by an adult, this film features some of most sumptuously dazzling imagery ever shown onscreen—and, on top of that, one of the most remarkable child acting performances, as Romanian actress Catinca Untaru, only 6 or 7 when the film was shot, literally drives this film with the authenticity of her performance, especially the way she continually speaks broken English in a halting manner, and lisps through her missing front teeth, exactly the way a young child would speak. As phenomenal as the visuals are in this film, it is matched by Untaru’s warmth, curiosity, and utter sincerity.
In this adaptation, Lee Pace is Roy Walker, a seriously injured patient who may never walk again, whose hopes are deflated further when the woman he loves walks out on him. Adrift in a meaningless fog, young 5-year old Untaru as Alexandria, herself recovering from a broken arm, accidentally enters his life from a hospital corridor and develops a deep affection for his imaginative adventure stories told in serial installments with a smooth southern drawl that not only delight, but captivate her to the core of her being, which surprisingly involves people around them transformed into a new, phantasmagorical world, much like THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939) or something we might find from the mind of Miyazaki, where her very life is at stake in each and every outcome. Roy is the Douglas Fairbanks swashbuckler bandit, who with his band of thieves, accompanied by Alexandria herself, has sworn revenge on the evil Governor Odious, the scourge of the planet who hides behind faceless men in armor, as if a time shift has suddenly returned them to the Arabian Nights subject to the mercy and might of the Roman empire. Yet strangely Roy and his men carry single shot firearms along with an archer, an explosives expert, also Charles Darwin sketching the development of monkeys, who seem no match for the multitude of soldiers who at times overwhelm them in staggering numbers alone, sometimes appearing in moving geometric shapes and designs. The less said the better about what actually happens in this movie, as part of the thrill is being carried along for the ride, but mention must be made of Colin Watkinson’s fluid cinematography, Krishna Levy’s unworldly music, which includes Beethoven’s 2nd movement from his 7th Symphony (played by a Bulgarian orchestra), art director Lisa Hart, production designer Ged Clarke, and the stunning costume designs of Eiko Ishioka, as all contribute in the creation of this unusual kaleidoscope of form.
I simply disagree with those that find no dramatic weight to this film, or who are unmoved by this spectacle, as Pace and Untaru work exceptionally well together and are symbiotically interwoven between two worlds, displaying a surprising amount of charm and humor, all leading to a unique climax of sorts that is as heartbreaking as it is breathtaking, where Untaru’s thoughts at the end reach unprecedented heights in what amounts to a mesmerizing monologue that couldn’t be more compelling. One of the delights of experiencing this film is its obvious joy in cinema itself where visual expression defines their interior world, using a variety of techniques all to the film’s advantage, opening in black and white over the opening credits, moving back and forth in time, using actors in multiple, near unrecognizable roles. This becomes a veritable study in storytelling techniques, blending the line between fantasy and reality until they intersect, made even more remarkable by the awesome set designs built on locations around the world, shot in the widest angle possible suggesting futuristic landscape designs, creating imaginary villains that can appear in hordes from out of nowhere, literally extending the limits of the audience’s ability to grasp just what is happening, concealing what the film is even about until the very end, when in a deliriously captivating picture perfect film montage, which could just as easily be a lesson on the origins of cinema, with Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, and a host of others leading the way, paying homage to all who have come before, there is a flood of recognition and appreciation for the director’s motives, who is truly to be commended for inventing this delightful cinema paradiso. Maybe we know what happens by the end, maybe we don’t, I’m not sure it really matters, as it’s the journey along the way that we’ll remember. This is an extraordinary road movie that takes us around the world through a 5-year old’s imagination, reminding us of the delights of childhood, like waiting impatiently for Santa Claus when we couldn’t wait for the next thing to happen, where every anticipated thought and idea felt like the most important moments in the world. Like the cinematic rhapsodies of Terrence Malick or the architectural magnificence of Orson Welles, this film makes us appreciate how cinema can speak to us on such intimate terms, as if we’re the only ones in the room who’ve been invited on this special journey.
3.) MAN ON WIRE
Great Britain USA (94 mi) 2008 d: James Marsh
Fathoming the awe inspiring and the unknowable may be one of the fundamental inspirations driving some to defy that which is considered humanly impossible, not only by achieving spectacular accomplishments, but doing so with a dazzling display of artistry and skill, and this film certainly places its finger on the pulse of something that is simply beyond words or description. After seeing this film, I could only wonder how Werner Herzog, the documentarian of madmen and obsessives, missed his opportunity to film Philippe Petit, notorious high wire walker and self-described artiste légendaire, a man who defies all category of description with his death defying performance art, who at age 24 shortly after 7:15 am on August 7, 1974 became the only man in history to attempt his high wire act between the two towers of what was at the time the world’s tallest building, the World Trade Center in New York City (which was still being constructed but nearly completed, giving them an opportunity to slip in unnoticed with huge amounts of equipment, including a balancing pole eight metres long, weighing 55 pounds), at 1368 feet, or nearly a quarter of a mile in the air above the streets of Manhattan, stepping off the South Tower onto a steel cable strung between the top 104th floors of the two towers and leisurely walking the 200 feet distance back and forth between the buildings some 7 or 8 times over the course of his 45-minute performance, occasionally sitting, even lying down on the wire, and finally giving a salute and a smile before he was arrested.
The title of the film comes from a police report description of the event, where Petit not only obliterated commonly held perceptions of what was considered humanly impossible, but he made it look effortless with such extraordinary ease, artistry and grace. A self-taught acrobat, juggler, magician, unicyclist, pickpocket and street performer who loathes the idea of limiting his craft to working in the circus, there’s an interesting use of split screen as on one side the World Trade center is being constructed while on the other, Petit’s life is being shown through a reconstructed home movie montage where actors are used to recreate his earlier life. Two memorable friends stand out, Annie Allix, his girl friend, played by Ardis Campbell when she fell madly in love, describing herself as an extremely shy person who was “overwhelmed, bowled-over, and harpooned” by him, while the other is his most trusted childhood friend, Jean-Louis Blondeau, both of whom recall the events with a surprising degree of intensity. Based on his own book published in 2002, To Reach the Clouds, Petit himself describes the meticulous planning that he and others studiously engaged in for 6 years before their successful venture, as the inspiration to walk the towers came to him at age 18 when he read an article about the construction of the towers which included an illustration, a picture he immediately cut out drawing a line between the towers, imagining himself elevated on the wire. While waiting for the towers to be built, he performed two other gravity-defying feats simply as a rehearsal for the main event, walking between the spires of the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris which he performed as church services were in session, completely unaware of what was transpiring high above them in the air, and walking between the pylons over the Sydney Harbor Bridge which brought traffic to a standstill. Both events were filmed and are included in this spellbinding documentary, where at one point hovering over the bridge, the wire can’t be seen, giving the impression he’s walking on air.
Despite the fact Petit is alive and is recalling these events with a boundless enthusiasm, the element of suspense is staggering in this film, much of it due to the beautiful construction by the filmmaker, presented with a long build up of meticulous detail in planning and preparation designed to resemble the bank heist film RIFIFI (1955), but also due to the enormously compelling recollections of the people involved, some of whom are moved to tears thinking about it. If ever anything called for mental preparation, this is it, and the degree of concentration in Petit’s mind is infinitely greater than anyone else’s, yet this unusual cast, some 30 years after the fact, recalls the events as if it were yesterday, including Allix, who perhaps more than anyone else understood the magnificence of the moment. Her heartfelt exhilaration at seeing him fulfill his dream is memorable, as are Petit’s own lyrical and poetic thoughts as he so persuasively lures us into his world of wire walking, explaining how it consumes his entire essence and becomes the all-important driving force in his life. Blondeau, as well, is extremely articulate in explaining his role in helping mastermind with great care the exhaustive technical details for the whole ordeal and set it up so that Petit was comfortable on the wire. The idea of shooting an arrow connected to fishing wire from one tower to the other and subsequently adding heavier line until finally a 450 pound steel cable could be fastened to each tower was largely his idea, which also included steadying the wire with several supporting lines known as the cavaletti. But the closer they come to the coup, as they call it, a comedy of errors sets in elevating the significance of even the tiniest details, any one of which could derail the event. And yes, Petit probably embellishes the troubling encounters they ran into for dramatic appeal, but much of this is simply hilarious.
The fluidly paced juxtaposition of images makes this one of the best edited films of the year, with brilliant photography by Igor Martinovic, where some of the best images are amateur photographs shot by friends such as Jim Moore weeks or months ahead of time capturing Petit in solitary thought perched precariously at the edge of the roof on the tower. Michael Nyman’s supporting music, some of which others have heard before in Greenaway films, “Drowning by Numbers” and “Chasing Sheep Is Best Left to Shepherds,” but also Vaughan Williams’ “A Lark Ascending,” Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King,” and Peter Green’s “Albatross” have a fullness of sound that fills the screen before scaling back into the quiet eloquence of Erik Satie’s “Gymnopédies,” delicate piano music as light as a feather that perfectly matches the ethereal elegance of Petit taking his first steps on the wire. Jean Cocteau once remarked on Satie’s “Gymnopédies”: “Satie goes forth quite naked.” The same could be said here for Philippe Petit. Unlike his other walks, there is no video camera, only unparalleled still photos shot by Jean-Louis Blondeau, each one generating more oohs and aahs than I have ever heard in a theater, but the moment captured is nothing less than magnificent, narrated by Allix who simply loves and adores this man who successfully redefines human limitations and literally floats in the sky. This is a thrilling and exhilarating motion picture that by defying gravity and human impossibility realizes a strange perfection, a fitting tribute to the fallen towers, creating transcendent, freeze frame moments in time that feel like poetic reflections of eternity.
4.) J’ENTENDS PLUS LA GUITARE
aka: I Don’t Hear the Guitar Anymore
(made in 1991, released in Chicago 2008)
France (98 mi) 1991 d: Philippe Garrel
One doesn’t get a chance to see films like this very often, a premiere in Chicago 17 years after it was released, opening with little or no fanfare, no special announcements or critical appraise, little to alert the public of a special event, playing in a near empty theater where only those few who have heard about it by word of mouth are there. Garrel’s more appreciative work was his most recent film, REGULAR LOVERS (2005), a mammoth 3-hour work that looks behind the scenes at the student demonstrations in Paris during the late 60’s which played the festival circuit and was widely acclaimed, starring Garrel’s own son Louis who may as well be the poster child for French films. To my knowledge, that is the only film that had a run here in the United States. Garrel’s other 25+ films have only been talked about, perhaps a few have been screened across the country in recent retrospectives, but most have never been seen. This is a magnificent looking film, one that takes full advantage of the utilization of space, usually from close to medium range shots where the emptiness of the unfilled space between characters becomes one of the themes of the film. Cinematographer Caroline Champetier makes it all look effortless with an extremely fluid camera style that at times resembles choreography, particularly the way she changes the focus between characters by following the pace of their body movement. This is an extremely naturalistic film, one of the quietest I’ve ever seen, much of it shot in interior rooms conveying a maximum amount of silence where even natural sound appears to be muted, where quiet, near inaudible conversations appear to be taking place in a vacuum, as if the outside world is not allowed to protrude. This mood is perfectly accentuated in brief glimpses by outstanding original music by Faton Cahen, which features a piano and a few ascending jazz riffs on a sax, an eloquent testament to a narcotic induced haze.
While this nearly non-narrative, highly impressionistic film is certainly not for everybody, as it’s clearly downbeat and utterly sad, an unglamorous view without artifice of what might be described as the cinema of no emotion, but what it does offer is an artistic appreciation for realism with a nervy intelligence. With no particularly likeable characters, this is an extremely personalized, understated, autobiographical film, a fictionalized recreation, opening in bed with a couple awakening from sleep on the sunny Italian Riviera, Gérard, Benoît Régent, a stand-in for the director, and Marianne, Johanna ter Steege, brilliant as a stand-in for his real-life girlfriend Nico, from the Velvet Underground, with whom he spent ten years of his life and made 7 trippy films together in the 70’s. While discussing the ramifications of love, it’s apparent they are questioning every word, every syllable, in attempting to break down anything phony in their commitment to one another. Marianne especially finds Gérard’s words to be a kind of empty articulation that feels learned and ingrained, hardly spontaneous revelations “of the moment.” Régent offers an unusual style of being completely noncommittal, almost as if he’s not even there, as we never learn his profession, what money he lives on or anything about his background, instead he remains hidden behind a cloud of mystery, somewhat reminiscent of Bill Pullman in LOST HIGHWAY (1997). Marianne on the other hand, whose every movement is followed by the camera, has her own sensual style with a playfully inquisitive mind, very direct and to the point, but never forcing the issue, simply asserting her views openly. They share their time with another couple, Gérard’s friend Martin (Yann Collette), a painter who has lost an eye and his girlfriend Lola (Mireille Perrier), with whom Gérard may have at one time been intimate. Anouk Grinberg as Adrienne plays yet another outside interest. Together they express a free wheeling, somewhat indulgent philosophical style that represents a lofty, grandiose view of themselves.
Moving back to Paris, the interior mood has darkened considerably, as has their increased drug use, introducing heroin into their relationship. It’s interesting to see how one’s obsessed notion of “need” can become an illusion, used frequently as a romantic expression between lovers, yet with narcotics it’s a foregone conclusion who (or what) becomes the real need. Humans become completely irrelevant. Marianne quickly disappears without a trace, presumably with another man, though perhaps out of self preservation, which leaves Gérard nearly immobile and alone. Like an answered prayer, a woman appears at his door, announces she’s a friend of Marianne named Aline (Brigitte Sy, Garrel’s former real life wife and mother to Louis), who proceeds in grand style to nurse Gérard back to the living, which includes getting married and having his baby, all of which is realized in a single shot. Compared to everything else we’ve experienced, usually seen through oblique, intensely personal conversations, a dinner sequence with her family and the newborn baby has a tinge of the ridiculous, yet it’s perhaps the most normal scene in the film. When Marianne returns, Gérard is torn between separate lives, his old and his new, and hasn’t a clue how to make it right, as it’s clear his earlier high-minded ideals and confessed promises to Marianne are coming back to haunt him. The internal damage this causes each of them after supposedly cleaning up their lives, is devastating, perhaps best represented in a scene between Marianne and Aline, which appears to be something of a peace offering but soon deteriorates into a strange personal confession by Marianne describing her life with Gérard, which evolves from an existential meaninglessness to greater transcendent heights, all of which is meant to casually dismiss Aline’s world to the near-irrelevant, but it perhaps drives a stake through her own heart instead.
I found this film gorgeous, intelligent, and surprisingly tender, offering little if any emotion emanating from the screen, but that is the Bressonian mold which forces the viewer to supply their own emotional perspective. Partly that is what makes this film so unique, as it doesn't follow convention any more than the characters do, as when moving in a single shot from the day he meets Aline to a subsequent day when they are married and already have a child. That type of economy is, to say the least, unusual. Also, of interest, the filmmaker spares no one, especially himself, revealing his own inadequacies in nearly every shot, especially the last one. This kind of ruthless critique of one’s own behavior deserves some recognition. The spared down version of how he tells the story of his life is unlike any I've ever seen, yet due to the way he films it, where so much detail permeates specific periods, it's as if we've read a book, as we feel intimately familiar with the lives of the central characters. Marc Cholodenko is credited with the stunning dialogue, much of which owes a debt to Jean Eustache’s THE MOTHER AND THE WHORE (1973), as the unsparing confessional tone is mixed with a raw internal dysfunction, where the physical quality of the peeling paint on the walls literally takes on a life force of its own, where people’s lives start to resemble the worn out, dilapidated buildings that they casually inhabit all their lives, never giving it a second thought. Yet by the end, it’s clear that Gérard was never honest with himself throughout the entire film, a realization that haunts him and taints his memories of Marianne, clearly the singlemost significant relationship in his life. What stands out is the amount of time wasted in this director’s life where so much is lost on drugs and personal missteps, where only after Nico’s death does Garrel come to realize how much he loved her and that she was in fact the love of his life. With this film, the haze has cleared and Garrel finally has the opportunity to tell the unvarnished truth. The film is dedicated to Nico who died three years before its release.
5.) STILL LIFE
China Hong Kong (108 mi) 2006 d: Jia Zhang-ke
A very slow, languorous film shot entirely in high definition digital video by Yu Lik-wai, THE WORLD (2004), that captures the rich colors of the region along with a solemn, funereal feel throughout, sort of the exact opposite of Kiarostami’s AND LIFE GOES ON (1991), another fictionalized film that was shot in the middle of devastating destruction, the aftereffects of a deadly Iranian earthquake. But while Kiarostami’s film searched through the ruins of destruction for any semblance of life, finding rebuilding, restoration projects everywhere that upliftingly reaffirmed one’s faith in man, Jia’s film seems to be set in the tombs, revealing instead a people in the process of demolishing an entire civilization, evicting all the residents from Fengjie, an ancient city 2000 year old, relocating them (1.5 million and still counting) without really keeping track of where they’re heading, creating an unprecedented government imposed upheaval on a massive scale, something that might be expected during wartime, but certainly not due to a modernization project of building the world’s largest hydroelectric dam more than twice the size of any other dam in the world that will eventually leave the entire city underwater. Like MEDIUM COOL (1969) decades earlier, Jia scripts his fictional film in the middle of this partially submerged, real-life demolition project introducing two characters searching for missing spouses who they haven’t seen in awhile. In a film like this, locations are everything, as nearly every frame of the film captures the stunning mountainous beauty of the vicinity, called the Three Gorges region due to gorges spectacularly coming together along the Yangtze River, a scene depicted on the back of a ten Yuan note in Chinese currency, but every frame is also a time capsule for a lost civilization, which is hauntingly still thriving before extinction as we see the people scrambling about the city streets in a bustle of activity, but there are horizontal lines affixed to tall buildings ominously showing where the water line will be in the next phase of construction, where everything under that line will be submerged in water. In eerie fashion, everything below that line is being destroyed, while everything above that line has a tenuous hold on life, both shown in a flurry of feverish activity which may as well separate the rich from the poor, as the poor continue to inhabit the low lying regions.
What makes this film so unusual is the ponderous nature of the way it is filmed, full of curiosity and questions in the slow observational pans that combine intimate portraits of ordinary citizens set against this continual destruction of what used to be a vital city, literally tearing it apart brick by brick while looming off in the distance is the omnipresent stillness of this extraordinary natural landscape which is nothing short of breathtaking. Without ever offering details or statistics, which can easily be provided by journalists, there is instead an enveloping sadness permeating through every image, as sweaty, shirtless men are paid meager wages to use sledgehammers to reduce a city to dust and rubble reminiscent of Rossellini’s post-war GERMANY YEAR ZERO (1948), an industrial wasteland of epic proportions causing the region to be perpetually enveloped in low-lying clouds, but also men whose idle time is spent smoking cigarettes or eating noodles, chatting feverishly while playing mahjong as the camera slowly shifts its attention and gazes at any number of barges floating down the river carrying commercial goods, all shown with a poetic detachment that objectively offers no point of view.
Sanming Han is a working class coal miner who comes to the city searching for his missing wife of 16 years, also his daughter that he’s never seen. When he realizes the street where she used to live is submerged underwater, he enlists the aid of fellow citizens, eventually joining one of the demolition crews himself. His lower class pattern of living routinely includes bartering and sharing, offering bottles of liquor to express gratitude to officials or handing out individual cigarettes to friends, where living in such claustrophobic close quarters means the concept of privacy is non-existent. His personal business becomes everyone around him’s business, as he has to be accepted by the group before he can ever hope of succeeding in his mission. Whether he succeeds or not remains ambiguous to the viewers, but the unusual way his story comes together is handled beautifully, with a calm understatement and a potent underlying emotional reserve. Zhao Tao, in all Jia features since PLATFORM (2000), plays a nurse, an educated, independent-minded, middle-aged women who hasn’t seen her husband in two years, where his slowly developing offscreen profile is an unusual way to introduce a character, as we discover he’s a hot-shot official, most likely corrupt, who administers one of the construction projects in town and maintains a great deal of power in the region. His hesitancy to meet with her is understandable, as she discovers he’s probably having affairs with plenty of women, but her motive remains a mystery through most of the film, only revealing itself when he finally comes out of hiding and meets with her. Despite his economic status, her manner of classic stoicism keeps him continually off guard, never knowing what to expect, as she retains the upper hand, a fact that may well explain why he left in the first place.
Continuing in Jia’s contemplative quest to intermix the personal with the historical, his first three films took place in Shanxi province where the director was born, all showing the shattering impact of China’s attempts to modernize in rural interior regions, while both characters in this film are traveling from Shanxi, both attempting to repair broken relationships, where the future seen through differing class perspectives offers diverging possibilities. Through the sheer mastery of what he’s able to compress into each shot, we are constantly reminded of what’s at stake building such a mammoth project in the middle of such overwhelming, magisterial beauty, and what utter gall it takes to intentionally displace so many people from their homes and their history as a matter of public policy, literally reducing 2000 years of history to rubble before it disappears from sight altogether, taking a tremendous human gamble by betting it all on the future. Initially proposed almost 90 years ago by Sun Yat-sen, according to David Denby from The New Yorker, this project has been steadily moving forward since 2004 and is expected to be completed sometime in 2009. Shot in 2006, Jia was able to film midway through the largest public works project in human history. The consequences are enormous, both pro and con, and the idea that China, normally not known for their progressive views, would allow this most brilliantly independent of Chinese filmmakers into the region knowing the unpredictability of his artistic and political views, certainly as seen through their point of view, yet it happened, and the result is this quiet, probing, utterly realistic, yet near surreal, non-narrative essay that explores the region through visual imagery and broken marriages. The dam itself is only seen towards the end of the film, and even then only as a backdrop, a subtle hint that it is not yet fully operational.
One of the more modern images of the film is seen at an evening penthouse party on an outdoor balcony directly overlooking a giant suspension bridge that spans the river. As it caters to the rich and powerful, Zhao Tao believes her husband could be there. Instead another powerbroker arrives on the scene and expresses dismay that the bridge is not lit up. A quick cell phone call obtains instant results and the bridge lights up like a birthday cake. Another somewhat surreal image is an empty, gigantic structure which may have once housed building occupants, but it has long been abandoned and is left standing alone towering over a barren field where kids play. At one point, this monstrosity of a structure simply fires up burners at the bottom and takes off, like some kind of mysterious UFO and vanishes from view. Almost identical to a Kiarostami image in AND LIFE GOES ON of a beautiful green landscape seen through a broken-down window of the ruins that reveals sheep grazing peacefully in the fields, where hope can literally be seen through the ruins, with haunting Arabic music providing a profound sense of something sacred, Jia on the other hand shows a married couple, several stories high, embracing near a similar broken-down window in the ruins that overlooks the skyline of this city off in the distance where after an extensive period of time one of the tallest buildings suddenly collapses. One must mention the outstanding musical score by Giong Lim on his second Jia film, formerly working with Hou Hsiao-hsien, including some irresistible sequences scored to romantic pop music songs. The supreme image is left for the finale, however, where off in the distance a man inexplicably performs a high-wire act walking between two tall buildings that are likely targeted for extinction, another improbable balance between high and low or the sacred and the profane.
6.) TÔKYÔ SONATA
Japan Netherlands Hong Kong (119 mi) 2008 d: Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Kurosawa is seen by many as a cult director due to his early works which helped define New Japanese cinema, showing an underground and energetic Japanese youth that are alienated from a modern society defined by a tilt towards consumerism, reflected in gimmicks and gadgetry, and old generation parents that don’t understand they can’t buy their way out of their children’s problems or comprehend why this new generation feels so vaguely uncertain about their future, deeply confused about coming to terms with a modern Japanese identity, especially after this younger generation supposedly had it so good. Never one to show his hand, Kurosawa explores an ambiguous world of the supernatural in a film like CURE (1997), or utilizes ghosts in a full throttle horror film like PULSE (2001). His films have a trademark elusiveness that’s hard to define, adding to a certain mystique that surrounds his reputation. One thing that impresses me the most about this film is the filmmaker’s ability to continually redefine himself through his body of work, as this is unlike any of his other films, perhaps more mature, more refined, perhaps aware that he’s being seen on a larger stage. But above all, it remains an intelligent work that continues to probe the many unseen layers of Japanese society, unmasking the invisible, examining people of all ages who exist but are rarely seen as they blend so perfectly into the homogonous whole. TOKYO SONATA is a rare film that revels in its simplicity, but then veers off course when things don’t go the way it seems into an undefined no man’s land of unrealized expectations.
Kurosawa examines a modern Japanese family where all are bright and educated, where they happily greet one another when they come home, eat together at the same table, and that for all practical purposes is a success story. The director then slowly deconstructs this impression one member at a time, as if invaded by an invisible dark force that plagues each individual, making them behave out of context with how they understand their own lives. It’s a quiet film filled with absurdist humor offering subtle clues, continually challenging the audience’s perceptions of what they see, bringing a scene to the brink of closure, and then letting it remain incomplete, filming in fragments rather than completing the scene to the end. In this way, the audience has to fill in the blanks and make up their own minds about what’s happening with each character. By the end, altered by forces seen and unseen, where so much happens offscreen and so much is left unspoken, all are significantly different, yet appear just the same.
The father, the multi-faceted Teruyuki Kagawa whose face reads whatever you want to see in it, is a corporate administrator that loses his job in the opening moments of the film. Rather than tell his wife and family who are so used to him going to work each day, he continues his little charade of pretending to go to work to the point of absurdity, especially when he meets another colleague who is doing the exact same thing, hanging out in food lines, spending all day at the library, and most impressively, setting his cell phone to ring 5 times an hour so he can feign important business calls. The friend is priceless, even asking the father over to his home where he can berate his lazy work ethic in front of his wife in order to maintain his stature as the voice of authority in his home. The father is eventually challenged by his own family in much the same way. The eldest son (Yu Koyanagi) is hardly ever at home, consumed by his studying and school activities. But when he announces he wants to join the American army in the war, reasoning that the American army protects Japan, so if he joins forces in the Middle East, he will actually be doing his part to protect Japan as well. Once he’s enlisted, those news reports about the war abroad that they never paid any attention to become substantially more traumatizing. The youngest son, Kai Inowaki in a note perfect performance, is bright, perhaps too bright, as he inadvertently organizes a rebellion against his teacher’s morality after he is accused of bringing manga porn to class. Against his father’s wishes, he decides to pursue piano lessons, one presumes because he has a crush on the attractive young teacher, Haruka Igawa, but he turns out to be a brilliant young student whose talent is so exceptional his father refuses to believe him. Once more, his authoritative voice is challenged at home. Easily the most far reaching and surreal segment is the strange happenings with the mother, former pop idol Kyoko Koizumi, who is the quiet voice of reason and civility in her proper household as the perfect mother, perhaps overprotective, usually taking her children’s side against their father, whose authority is completely undermined by the end, or so it seems.
What might seem surprising here is the impression of how easily conformism and the entrenched social fabric all falls apart and how little it takes for that to happen, such as losing one’s job and the domino effect this has on the entire family. Again, much of this feels suggested, where appearance is not necessarily reality, as if to play with our preconceptions, where perhaps not much has really changed at all. The character development here is well defined as we come to appreciate each character, yet it also remains ambiguous by the very nature of so much remaining unknown and incomplete. This film has far reaching consequences that likely affects all of us, yet many will leave the theater without realizing any of that. Just because the director places clues doesn’t mean people will find them or even begin to understand. Certainly one of the most appealing aspects here is the artfully constructed quiet humanism balanced against the luminous look of the film, where much of the indoor scenes are shot in a golden hue and where so many shots feel perfectly framed by Akiko Ashizawa, not the least of which is the final shot. This film requires interaction with the audience, where despite the meticulous detail in every scene, we’re left with so many unanswered questions.
TOKYO SONATA turns out to be the highlight of the Chicago Film Fest this year for me, which in hindsight, after seeing all the other films, was far and away the best film seen. If you simply read the nothing special synopsis, you might wonder what all the fuss is about, but this is beautifully realized direction. The intelligence of this film, the exquisite look, the fluid pace, the changes in tone and character, the playful use of genre expectations, the superb performances overall and the remarkable inventiveness and originality simply make it stand out above all others. It was awarded the Silver Hugo as the 2nd Best Film at the 2008 Chicago Film Fest (1st prize went to HUNGER).
7.) THE EDGE OF HEAVEN (Auf Der Anderen Seite)
aka: On the Other Side
Germany Turkey (122 mi) 2007 d: Fatih Akin
This film opens and closes on a brilliant shot, each offering its own thematic observation, beginning with a car arriving at a desolate, run down gas station, where the traveler is called by the name of “brother” several times, a sign of cultural respect, but one that is multi-sided, as the film soon reveals. Fatih Akin has written another one of those Kieslowski-like intersecting plot scenarios told in three chapter headings involving three families with mixed German-Turkish heritage, a Turkish father and son living in Germany, a Turkish mother living in Germany but separated from her long lost daughter, and a German mother and daughter, not necessarily seen in any correct order. At some point in the film, all are connected, but what matters most is not the interweaving mathematical construction, which is interesting enough, but the deep-seeded connections that are established, some of which are profoundly moving. The film highlights the differences between the two cultures in the first two shots, which couldn’t be more opposite, providing the viewer some idea as to the vast divide that exists between characters. Historically, as the postwar French invited the Algerians, Turks were invited into Germany to work as “guest workers,” the exact same term President Bush has used for his proposed temporary resident immigration program with Mexicans, a proposal that went nowhere except to fan the flames of racist intolerance along the border states where they are building giant iron fences to keep the immigrants out. While these host nations offer unskilled, low wage labor, it has been accompanied by deep seeded resentment in the mother country against the “foreigners” as well as complications arising when first generation offspring are actually born citizens, yet treated with racist scorn and disregard. Evidence Fassbinder’s earlier German classic ALI: FEAR EATS THE SOUL (1974) and the recent riots outside Paris that lasted for weeks. Angry demonstrations by what are seen as radical fringe groups in both France and Germany (and now Turkey) are the norm and cast an altogether different face than the advertised brotherly unity of the European Union.
Tuncel Kurtiz as Ali Aksu is an Anthony Quinn, Zorba the Greek type character, an old Turkish man who retains his vigorous energy and charm, and his delight with the pleasures of women and drink. When he finds a Fassbinderesque Turkish hooker in Bremen, Germany, Nursel Köse as Yeter, who may as well be the voluptupus Barbara Valentin in ALI: FEAR EATS THE SOUL, he is so taken by her that he makes her an offer to come live with him. After she is visited by some glum looking Islamic radicals who could make her life miserable, she thinks the old man’s offer is a safe choice, but it has tragic consequences for both. Ali’s son is Nejat (Baki Davrak), somewhat reminiscent of French actor Romain Duris, an introverted college German professor who lectures on Goethe and becomes the closest thing to a lead character in this film as he goes searching for Yeter’s missing daughter in Istanbul, realizing the importance of the connection they never had. Nurgül Yesilçay plays the daughter Ayten, a fiercely independent radical in Turkey who has revolutionary ambitions with militant connections, which after an unfortunate incident leads to a quick escape to Hamburg, Germany where she meets Lotte (Patrycia Ziolkowska) completely at random, soon becoming love interests, despite the disapproving eye of her mother Susanne, Fassbinder icon Hannah Schygulla, who truly rekindles her acting credibility here. Once everyone is introduced, tragedy befalls each and every one, though in differing ways, but each loses something that may as well be the most important thing in their life.
This film is, according to Michael Guillen from The Evening Class, also Twitch: the second entry in an intended trilogy "Liebe, Tod und Teufel" ("Love, Death and the Devil")—of which Akin's acclaimed Head-On was the first installment. While not as explosive as his previous film HEAD ON (2004), a radically offbeat punk love story, this is still a daring work of probing intelligence on the power of redemption, simultaneously tearing us apart while also bringing us closer together, set in an expanding internationalized stage with a constantly-on-the-move camera style by Rainer Klausmann that beautifully captures with precision the finer details in each culture, which is an extraordinary expression simply by composition alone, adding authentic locations and music to a superb ensemble of actors, lead by Schygulla who may surprise many with the depth of her performance, but she is given some of the best scenes in the film which occur near the end. Her character beautifully transcends the cultural divide with her effortless style of understatement and also offers a refreshing look at what those self-absorbed kids from Fassbinder’s KATZELMACHER (1969) might have turned into forty years later. The final shot has its own transcendent quality, which could easily be a shot from similar films such as Ozon’s TIME TO LEAVE (2005) or Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s CLIMATES (2006), yet shown here, coming on the heels of Schygulla’s personal transformation, offers profound insight. It’s so easy to get caught up in our differences, which is at the root of KATZELMACHER, shown through simple, ordinary acts of societal prejudice and xenophobia, but what we have in common is all too often overlooked and forgotten, but not by Akin, called Fatih Fassbinder in some reviews, who skillfully navigates outside the jurisdiction of national boundaries and identities by knowing each so well and instead, despite the meandering journey, cuts a path straight to the heart of the matter, creating believable people who suffer unfathomable losses yet retain a surprising emotional resilience.
Norway (105 mi) 2006 d: Joachim Trier
Inexplicably, this film opened very favorably in Europe two years ago but is only now finding its way to an American release despite having enormous energy and appeal. Joachim Trier, born in Denmark and twice Norway’s skateboard champion during his teens while also making several skateboard videos at the time, is a cousin of Danish director Lars von Trier, who at some point in his life felt the need to add the mysterious “von” to his name. Since the mid 90’s, Danish films have undergone a revival on the world’s stage, producing some of the most prominent directors working today, such as Lars von Trier’s THE KINGDOM (1994), BREAKING THE WAVES (1996), DANCER IN THE DARK (2000), and DOGVILLE (2003), Thomas Vinterberg’s THE CELEBRATION (1998), Soren Kragh-Jacobsen’s MIFUNE (1999), Lone Scherfig’s ITALIAN FOR BEGINNERS (2001), Susanne Bier’s BROTHERS (2005) and AFTER THE WEDDING (2006), not to mention Lucas Moodysson in Swedish/Danish co-productions. What all these films have in common are intelligent scripts and expert direction laying the foundation for some extraordinary performances, oftentimes by unheralded or non-professional actors, and this film is no exception. The story about two longtime friends who aspire to be writers was written by the director along with his longtime friend, Eskil Vogt, wonderfully expressed from the opening scene when Phillip (Anders Danielsen Lie) and Erik (Espen Klouman Høiner) drop manuscripts into the mailbox of novels they have written while the narrator toys with the audience by suggesting various outcomes that “could” happen, playfully using freeze frames and quick cuts always keeping viewers a bit off guard, much of it conveyed through a glorious montage of Nordic culture on parade in Oslo (with effective change of speed) that plays to the pulsating punk rhythms of Joy Division’s “New Dawn Fades.” While Phillip is immediately recognized as a vibrant new talent, Erik’s spirits deflate in the opposite direction when he hears nothing from publishers, thinking he is an abysmal failure. But just as quickly, Phillip suffers a mysterious breakdown that may or may not have anything to do with his relationship with Kari (Viktoria Winge), a gorgeous, immensely appealing young girl he obviously still has affections for—all this in the first ten minutes of the film.
Phillip doesn’t seem to be himself, finding his memory and his interests waning ever further from his grasp, including his mixed up feelings for Kari which frustrate him, as they’re not as vivid as he recalls, adding to his morose view that he has somehow lost touch with the world, shown with a delicate touch, including the quietest, somber music from Ola Fløttum and Knut Schreiner. At one point we flash forward six days, at another point it’s six months, using an imaginative editing style that keeps moving back and forth in time while remaining focused on the intimate friendship of the two who are collectively part of a close circle of friends, most all of them as well read and smart as they are, which serves as a combustible engine that drives this film with untiring interest and energy, much of it hilarious from the outset, as these guys are endlessly critical of everyone and everything they see, yet are still good natured goofs with one another, where one is a lead singer in a punk band that offers a rousing contemptuous view of the world with songs like “Fingerfuck the Prime Minister.” When Erik finally hears from an interested publisher that his new novel will be published immediately, he garners all the attention and acclaim that Phillip has been avoiding. Yet this is not necessarily a good thing for a writer. Voracious readers when they were younger, both idolized a legendary writer, Sten Egil Dahl (Sigmund Sæverud), who became the voice of his generation before retreating from public view in order to write. Both feel a connection to hold onto the good natured camaraderie of their friends, yet also stake out an unknown territory within that requires further exploration through writing, a solitary endeavor at odds with social relationships. Phillip’s intense personal struggle to reclaim what his brain can do is equivalent to the practice of writing itself, where nothing is assured except an internal struggle, shut off from the world outside, just one man alone with his own challenges. This entire film is a beautiful journey, a quest for meaning, where friends can’t help blurting out their thoughts with each other, blending, in a beautiful way, all their pent up anger and irritation as well as happiness and joy that are so easily interchanged right alongside moments of sadness and gloom.
The actors themselves are noteworthy, suggesting such a fresh ease of comfort in their performances, where the lack of artifice and complete believability is part of the film’s appeal, with an ensemble cast whose distinguishing characteristic is intelligence. A few notable scenes, Phillip and Kari’s return to Paris where they initially met which couldn’t this time have been more excruciatingly painful to watch, bookended later by his abrupt pronouncement at her workplace, barging in on the mindless repetition of telemarketing offering her only the slightest idea of hope, perhaps the most vulnerable moment in the film where that adrenal rush of hope can be annihilated within seconds yet instead feels like a sudden breakthrough of possibilities. But certainly the best moment in the film is the sustained brilliance of the party sequence, which relishes its own brand of humor, where the young lads turn the place upside down with the help of an ipod, where the frantically alive music of Le Tigre’s “Deceptacon” is simply irresistible (an amusing Devo-like music video may be seen here: http://www.diffusionpictures.co.uk/news.php?category=2), perhaps a last bloom of youth where they can do whatever the hell they please before the inevitable onset of adulthood and responsibilities set in, where hard fought principles disappear overnight as they suddenly become all that they found irritating earlier in life. This is an extraordinary depiction of youth rarely seen in films, as it all feels like we’ve been there before, yet it also offers the best and the brightest with smart, crackling dialogue that doesn’t take itself for granted, that offers a fresh wit with surprising originality throughout, continually altering the pace of the film, weaving in the collective imagination of art, mixing the painfully alone and meticulous work habits with the socially gregarious, leaving open a world of maybes, of what could have been, where multiple ideas literally jump off the screen simply by the way the story is told. There’s enough of an edge that it capitulates to no one, with some brilliant use of music, excellent hand-held camera work from Jakob Ihre, and despite a taut structure, Trier allows the freewheeling improvisational nature of his characters the uninhibited freedom to penetrate our souls with brash audacity.
9.) JELLYFISH (Meduzot)
France Israel (78 mi) 2007 d: Shira Geffen and Etgar Keret
"How do you spell ‘eternally in disgrace,’ one ‘l’ or two?"
An outstanding feature, an exquisite caricature of modern misunderstanding that is alarmingly precise in its miniaturization, beautifully written, well acted and edited, genuinely poignant and funny, this is an original take on the human condition. Humor in this film feels grounded in frustration, the kind Buster Keaton might fancy, not poking fun at anyone in particular, but using pointedly sharp satire that is still tender and warm-heartedly hilarious. The lead characters are memorable, closely observed and real, verging on the edge of sanity at times but nonetheless people we can identify with. The premise of the film is people in turmoil, all set to a rousing version of Edith Piaf’s La Vie En Rose in Hebrew. Shot in a seaside location in Tel Aviv, beautifully shot by cinematographer Antoine Héberlé, a guy leaves a girl in the opening scene, Sarah Adler as Batia, from Godard’s NOTRE MUSIQUE (2004), which all happens a bit too quickly for her to comprehend the situation, as by the time the words finally form in her mouth, he disappears from her life. Another couple gets married in a big wedding scene, Michael and Keren (Gera Sandler and Noa Knoller), but the bride gets stuck in the bathroom stall, breaking her leg attempting to escape, all but ruining their Caribbean honeymoon plans as instead they’re stuck inside a seaside hotel with no view of the sea, while a third sequence introduces a Philippino care giver (Ma-nenita De Latorre), a woman named Joy whose job is caring for miserable people—irony in the best sense of the word.
These characters remain aloof from each other and the world around them, but might feel right at home in the slow, hypnotic pace of a Tsai Ming-liang movie where everyone is similarly lost or out of place. Batia appears to be the worst waitress on the planet, whose home is infested with a ceiling leak that is over-running the bucket capturing the drops, who receives daily messages left on her answering machine from her celebrity mom, whose visage is seen on giant billboards all over town and on television programs, but otherwise completely ignores her daughter, as does her father who has found himself yet another young bulimic girl friend about his daughter’s age who consumes every minute of his time. In due time, Batia is fired from her job along with a pitiful wedding photographer Tamar (Tsipor Aizen) who shoots everything except the bride and groom, both of whom work for an overbearing employer who turns out to be the film director. (Note – the ice cream man is the director’s father, and the beach location is where they grew up.) Batia and Tamar become fast friends, though for no apparent reason, yet Batia becomes enamored with Tamir’s childhood home movies, claiming she loves the fact there is no story development.
Meanwhile the love birds in the hotel are having anything but marital bliss, as in a game of musical chairs they keep moving to a different hotel room, as the bride continues to find fault with the one they’re in. As the elevator doesn’t work, he finds himself lugging her up the stairs on a continual basis. In perhaps the most hilarious sequence in the film, the husband reminds her of their first date when they went to see a movie, but were continually beset by obstacles that prevented them from seeing or enjoying the movie, but they discovered, instead, each other. Their time together is interrupted by long walks the husband takes to get away or have a smoke on the stairwell, occasionally meeting a mysterious woman in the building (Bruria Albeck) who introduces herself with the come-on line: “How do you spell ‘eternally in disgrace,’ one ‘l’ or two?” before she disappears into the elevator.
Joy, on the other hand, is visibly distressed by not having her young son back home with her, where phone calls leave her feeling so helpless, as he doesn’t understand why she’s so far away. Ironic again that she cares for elderly or infirmed patients whose families are too busy to take care of them, yet she as well needs someone to care for her own son. After one disastrous job assignment, Joy meets Galia (Ilanet Ben-Yaakov) in a bustling coffee shop, a woman who’s too worried about the upcoming production of Hamlet where she plays Ophelia to care for her elderly mother, who she describes: “My mother. She’s a tough person, she can be rude.” Malka (Zaharira Harifai) is like a grown up version of Keren, an embittered, somewhat racist old woman who has spent her lifetime handing out insults and complaints. When neither speaks the other’s language they get along splendidly.
Thrown into this mix is Nikol Leidman, a young 6-year old girl that doesn’t speak, but whose hair remains wet throughout the rest of the picture, who appears out of the sea wearing only panties and an inner tube around her waist and finds Batia alone in a gloomy seaside mood. She follows Batia around, like a lost dog, having no other apparent reason to exist. Batia brings her to a police station, but there are no resources for missing persons where neither parent is making a complaint. Seeming to understand one another intrinsically, they leave together, live together, and seemingly belong together before the girl mysteriously disappears as strangely as she appeared. Here a theme is linked that appears hatched from Antonioni’s dream sequence in the middle of RED DESERT (1964). Joy keeps seeing a toy ship in a shop window, thinking this would make her son happy. Keren reads a hauntingly beautiful poem about a ship inside a bottle that is floating on the sea, drifting, suggesting this idea that we appear and disappear so randomly in each other’s lives, seemingly adrift ourselves, yet we each have a strange and lasting impact in ways we never intended or could have ever comprehended.
This strange choreography of missed intentions is the rhythm of the film, perhaps best represented by Joy’s missing boat sequence that moves from agonizing tears to ecstatic joy simply by changing the entire subtext of the moment and the relationship, or that absurdly bizarre stage presentation of Hamlet, perhaps the most hilarious Hamlet on record, where words are not spoken but shouted endlessly in repeated chants by Hamlet in a space suit and with Ophelia lying dead on the floor throughout half the play, making eye contact with her joyous mother in the audience who is so proud of her despite hating the ridiculous avant garde antics onstage. But the next day the daughter refuses to ever see her mother again because she can’t offer her enough praise for her performance. What’s clear to the audience in a clever movie like this is never so clear in the ambiguity of real life where people’s lives are continually absorbed with having to deal with obstacles or unexpected circumstances that continually appear and then disappear from their lives, much like the jellyfish motif, swept by forces beyond one’s control. For a mere 78 minutes, there’s a lifetime packed into this film, which won best screenplay and the Camera d'Or at Cannes 2007 for best first feature.
10.) TROUBLE THE WATER
USA (90 mi) 2008 d: Carl Deal and Tina Lessin
It felt like we lost our citizenship. —Kimberly Roberts
A wonderfully unpretentious film that by tracing the path of one family gets to the heart of the matter of the government’s notorious absence in New Orleans after Katrina leaving residents, but mostly poor and black residents where the greatest damage occurred, to fend for themselves. Without explaining how she happened upon a video camera, apparently a $20 camcorder that feels left over from the CLOVERFIELD (2008) movie set, Kimberly Roberts from her home on France Street in the Lower 9th Ward of New Orleans starts filming her house and everything around the neighborhood in anticipation of Hurricane Katrina, as she wanted a recording of what it looked like both before and after. Greeting everyone she meets on the street, asking what their plans are, also filming while riding her bike, where you can hear the click click click as the pedal hits the kickstand, we get a good sense of how she sees her neighborhood and the people familiar to her living in it, some of whom, including several in her own family, will not survive the storm. She has a natural ease with people and the good sense to narrate while the camera is running explaining what we are looking at as she stocks up on food, ice and emergency provisions. Unable to afford “the luxury” to get safely out of town (apparently their car had recently been stolen), she and her husband Scott decide to ride out the storm from her home, producing about twenty minutes of some of the most intense footage of the storm in action, where after the levees break a mere three blocks away, she comments “It’s like an ocean out there” as the water rises and her street is flooded as high as a stop sign. Her family is forced into the attic and eventually move to a house across the street that is one story higher, where she and about a dozen others including children, elderly and an infirmed have to be carried over a river chest high by her husband who uses a punching bag as a flotation device. With no help in sight and a 911 operator that tells them the city is not prepared to offer them any rescue assistance at this time, they have to wander through this nightmarish deluge on their own.
As we piece together footage after her battery runs dead where the film is framed with time headings—Two days after the levees fail, or one week after the levees fail, we learn that despite an abandoned Navy barracks several blocks away that had already been closed due to cuts in federal funding, where only a skeleton crew remained protecting the base, this family was turned away from more than 200 empty beds at the point of M-16’s locked and loaded pointed directly at them, ordering them to disperse. Instead they spent several nights in an abandoned school before they found a boat to take them to a Red Cross shelter, which is where they met the documentary filmmakers who were originally attempting to do a story on the travails of the National Guard, over-extended both in Iraq and now back here at home, but the Guard refused to cooperate. Among the most devastating footage captured was the deadly aftermath where in a rented van filled to capacity with 25 of her neighbors they drive past the New Orleans Superdome, where a long tracking shot resembles the look of the Civil War wounded in GONE WITH THE WIND (1939), capturing defenseless, helpless people who have no way out, many lying on the ground sick or near death from lack of water while several buses remain idle parked right across the street. While this entire catastrophe is amateurishly documented, Roberts has an amazing ability to offer her own soulful perspective whose raw insight and authenticity adds to the harrowing realism of the moment.
Actual news footage shown on TV is interspersed with what Roberts sees on the ground, often times at complete odds with one another, especially when President Bush or FEMA director Mike Brown affirm their alleged successes, or when we get a good look at the tourist video that the city still proudly uses. The Roberts family exits the city for their first time for a home 200 miles away owned by an uncle which has no running water, where in a typical day in the life scenario, the water department comes out to turn the water on at one point, only to return minutes later to turn it back off again. That uncle lost his mother when she was abandoned in a hospital during Katrina, as the entire staff evacuated and left the patients behind to fend for themselves. From this location they can visit FEMA centers where they line up next to “Gate B – Cattle entrance” and reapply for emergency funds that never came, after which they hope to move to a safer location, believing everything has been lost at home. When they make a return visit several weeks later to obtain what they can, the streets are a sea of mud and obliteration patrolled by neglected, near starving stray dogs. Kimberly feels blessed that a photo of her mother remains intact, explaining her mother died of AIDS when she was 13 and this is her only surviving keepsake. Amazingly their two dogs left behind survived, though they have been living on highly contaminated water, while the corpse of one man seen in the before Katrina footage still lays dead in his living room. The National Guard is summoned to obtain the body. Again a long tracking shot of several city blocks both a few weeks after the flood and shown again a year later shows one or two houses either rebuilt or still standing on her block while everything else remains a wasteland of utter demolition. Nothing has changed as there is simply no sign of life left there at all.
Instead they set out for Memphis, Tennessee where another relative lives, bringing extended family and the dogs, where in a nice, clean neighborhood it’s clear the additional numbers are asking a lot of anyone. At first, the peace and quiet and relative safety is like an oasis in the storm, but after a period of time, having nowhere else to go, they eventually return to New Orleans where Scott gets a job working with a building contractor reconstructing houses. Kimberly has a budding rap career under the name Black Kold Madina which is on full display after she discovers her own rap demo previously believed lost when she provides an audacious, foot stomping performance of her song (I Don't Need You To Tell Me That I'm) “ Amazing” while standing outside an overstuffed closet in a crowded bedroom with her husband proudly watching which is in perfect synch, a song that offers plenty of insight into her personal history, including that knife scar across her husband’s jaw, their life before Katrina as drug hustlers, and her literal resurrection into a woman with a clean slate and a new attitude about her future. It’s not so much a song as an anthem of joy and triumph in the face of diversity. There’s a defiant “Won’t Get Fooled Again” mentality that Kimberly develops after she’s had a chance to see schools outside New Orleans actually prepare kids for college and the future, while with the highest incarceration rate in the nation New Orleans is instead “preparing us for prison." Kimberly Roberts has come full circle with her before and after footage. Little did she know that what she couldn’t film, the growing maturity inside of herself, is what ended up changing the most. This disaster movie which is filled with first hand observations from an every day black perspective turns into a film of personal triumph, and in a moment of rare humility, Kimberly is brought to tears when one neighbor actually thanks her for the efforts she made on behalf of all her neighbors.
11.) RACHEL GETTING MARRIED
USA (113 mi) 2008 d: Jonathan Demme
Written by Jenny Lumet, Sydney Lumet’s daughter, this is one of those nervewracking, autobiographical searches for the missing pieces puzzle, a fiercely intense movie with a distinct emotional tone, which is that of an impending train wreck about to happen, which comes in the form of a former Disney princess (THE PRINCESS DIARIES), Anne Hathaway as Kym, tapping into the manic energy of early Liza Minnelli, sprung from her recent (and still unfinished) stint in rehab to come to her sister’s wedding. Set in a sumptuous estate in Connecticut, Kym finds the overflowing crowd getting on her nerves before she even arrives, finding little solitude or peace, where every conversation turns jarring or confrontational, where it’s clear there’s plenty of unfinished family business here. While no one else is particularly threatening, in fact the landscape on display is an endless picture of multi-ethnic diversity and tolerance, where the bride, Rosemarie Dewitt as Rachel, is marrying a black groom, Tunde Adebimpe. As he’s a musician (in real life a member of TV On the Radio: Official Website), there are a series of different musicians playing quietly off in a corner throughout the entire weekend, creating the impression of a Rennaissance Fair. In addition, several of his friends provide some extraordinary musical heft, adding a defining musical nuance to the film, all of which are brilliantly filmed and integrated into the whole, including the likes of Robyn Hitchcock and Sister Carol, New Orleans jazz saxophonist Donald Harrison Jr, performing both solo and with a jazz band, a Brazilian salsa band, Fab 5 Freddy, and during the wedding vows the groom inexplicably breaks into a heartfelt a cappella rendition of Neal Young’s “Unknown Legend.”
A disturbingly dark film bathed in sweetness and light, Declan Quinn's jittery handheld camera establishes the nervous tone of Kym’s character, whose acid tongue and incessant rancor with her sister starts out innocently enough, both over-privileged women who are used to having their way, with a befuddled father (Bill Irwin) precariously positioned between the two, where Rachel is sick of her sister stealing the limelight with her largely self-induced world of woe, but it gets out of hand, especially during one of the standout sequences in the film, a long, drawn out rehearsal dinner where the families meet for the first time, which is filled with humor and a spirit of generosity, where the honored couple obviously adore one another, so the toasts and tributes (in real time) feel well deserved and genuine, but the scene of harmony and congeniality curiously extends far too long, which is confusing and at times infuriating. When Debra Winger as the sister’s divorced mother makes her belated arrival, it’s clear she’s part of a troubled past, possibly expressed through her divorce, but also by her jittery mood that feels more like sedated aggravation. By the time Kym grabs the mike, she takes the air out of the room, as the mood strangely turns closer to the horror genre, as the tension becomes near unendurable, like a wedding exorcism. Much of this moment has the aching feel of exposed nerves rubbed the wrong way, reminding one of an emotional authenticity right out of HUSBANDS (1970), featuring the Cassavetes style cinema of discomfort where realism is expressed through the spontaneous combustion of raw emotions, where the director intentionally looks behind the various masks people wear in their awkward and sometimes pathetic search for a sense of belonging. The need for love is paramount, but in this family setting, despite the protection of wealth and the obvious love in the air, the hurt feelings and burrowed insecurities instead reveal a horrific display of dysfunction and human inadequacy, perfectly expressed afterwards by Rachel’s bitter chastisement of her sister for her reprehensible and divertingly indulgent toast.
With Hathaway’s remarkable transformance from her earlier association with the innocent and naïve Cinderella character, this is a raw and harrowing journey with an exquisite sense for editing, as cross-cutting throughout the wedding weekend are scenes at Kym’s AA meetings, where people identify they are an addict before confessing something personal about themselves. With the camera not more than a few inches from her face at all times in a signature extended take, Kym reveals her tragic past in an anguished soliloquy of personal sorrow that is perhaps the most stunning revelation in the film. It’s a haunting moment that defines the personal chaos simmering just below the surface ignited by Kym’s all-out assault on pretentiousness and shrouded family secrets. In the same manner, without Kym uttering a single word, her impact is shown in another drawn out scene of seemingly lighthearted gregariousness in the kitchen that turns on a dime, becoming a searing moment of tragic devastation. Kym and her mother on the other hand have a short scene, a burst of unforgettable power with tragic consequences, the impact of which reverberates throughout the rest of the film, where despite one’s best efforts, imperfections can get the best of us, where failings may end up defining our humanity, as if there are built-in family blinders hampering human development. Kym’s reaction to this is profound, as the love she needs from her mother, something she’s always counted on, may have dried up years ago. When she finally arrives at the door for the wedding ceremony with the look of a long lost, wounded puppy, the moment of intimacy between the sisters is like a baptism washing the sins away. Winger may not have a lot of screen time, as the film clearly belongs to Hathaway from start to finish, but the ambiguity of her character and the far reaching impact her troubles have heaped upon her family leaves everyone involved in a state of emotional disrepair. Balanced against a weekend long party celebration where most everyone else is upbeat and hopeful, featuring so much that is positive, Winger’s forced appearance, as if against her will, and Hathaway’s descent into her own personal hell lead to a series of rude awakenings that threaten to derail the entire proceedings. What we get instead is an incisive study of the human condition, where closure may be an illusion, but love is the best option to fend off all impending doubts that plague our weary and beleaguered souls about our worthiness to stand up to our own worst enemy, ourselves.
12.) A CHRISTMAS TALE (Un Conte de Noël)
France (150 mi) 2008 ‘Scope d: Arnaud Desplechin
Desplechin is one of the best directors to come out of France in decades and has never actually made a bad film, though I’m not sure he’s ever hit one out of the park either, so much of his appreciation lies in personal taste. Making relatively few films, he’s already established a reputation for writing intelligent scripts, some co-written by Cahiers du Cinéma writer Emmanuel Bourdieu, that exhibit comic wit and a flair for dialogue as well as unusual character developments, exquisite cinematography from Eric Gautier, and superb performances by individuals as well as ensemble casts. He has spent his life creating vivid characters, but this masterful work actually feels like the summation of his entire career, as he’s working with a Who’s Who of some of the best actors currently working in France. There’s a broad, epic sweep to this film where the story unravels one by one through various character vignettes in circular motion, as if designed using a working method where patience is the greatest virtue, as eventually everyone shares the spotlight. It bears resemblance to Bergman’s family dramas, especially those wonderful family scenes in FANNY AND ALEXANDER (1982). While it doesn’t contain the depth of arguably one of Bergman’s best, it does share a love for placing his own family dysfunction front and center, not looking back in bitterness, but with a wide-eyed adoration of just how wonderfully human family gatherings tend to be during the holidays, where the house is filled with wine and spirits along with special food dishes, mother and grandmotherly affections, sibling rivalries, eccentric uncles, children left to their own devices, but also impressive though amateurish theatrical shows that generate applause along with neverending music filling up the rooms with a special warmth and a lived-in atmosphere. No one described this holiday scene any better than Joyce in his final Dubliners short story, The Dead, a work which finalized John Huston’s film career in 1987, but Desplechin does wonders with his own version.
The storyline of this sprawling work does not bear repeating here, though it’s impossible not to relish Catherine Deneuve in an icy role as the refreshingly candid unmotherly matriarch and Mathieu Amalric as the bad seed of the family, the gloriously ungrateful son she detests the most, as both are utterly sublime together. Think back at Minnelli’s portrait of an American family in MEET ME IN ST LOUIS (1944) and compare that to the profane insults (even toasts!) and down and dirty backstabbing that become the centerpiece of this film, and one has to wonder just what has happened to the cinematic portrayal of the family unit in the last half century? Yet for all the ugliness and turmoil and deep-seeded resentments, there’s a surprising civility expressed in this film, perhaps best represented by Deneuve’s suicidal grandson (Emile Berling) who barely speaks but is highly effective showing the unintentional harmful repercussions of family dysfunction and years of abuse, yet responds with a near angelic gentle disposition. Throw in another gorgeous look at Chiara Mastroianni, as charming as ever, still trying to straighten out whatever it was that happened behind the scenes of her marriage years ago, as it entails no less than three different family members. Emmanuelle Devos deftly plays Amalric’s girl friend, walking a fine line as perhaps the only person on the planet who sees something in him worth holding onto, while Jean-Paul Roussillon plays the jovial, jazz loving patriarch who couldn’t harm a soul. Without revealing more, there are brief literary passages from Nietzsche to Shakespeare, superb examples of American jazz and a rock the house deejay on display, as well as that wonderful opening motif used in Mendelssohn’s Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. One can’t help but think of the charm and French humanist cinema of Jean Renoir, as Desplechin blends bitter episodes of dark anguish with utterly surprising moments of spontaneous hilarity, cleverly interweaving the past into the present, creating an exhilarating family portrait seething with life. I was surprised at how easily Desplechin pulls out all the stops in his latest work, a surprisingly dark and obsessive tale that couldn't have been presented in a more positive light, simply a delight.
13.) TIMES AND WINDS (Bes Vakit)
aka: Five Times
Turkey (111 mi) 2006 ‘Scope d: Reha Erdem
The bucolic, pastoral nature of this film feels timeless, like it could have been shot decades or even hundreds of years ago, featuring terrific locations gorgeously shot in ‘Scope by Florent Herry in the remote town of Kozlu high up on a rocky cliff overlooking the sea in Northern Turkey, where the rustic beauty of the landscape dominates the mood throughout this near plotless film, recalling the hypnotic imagery of Carlos Reygadas from JAPÓN (2002), even using music from the same composer, Arvo Pärt, or the exquisite minimalism of Bresson where people’s lives cruelly mix with the sublime grace of the natural landscape in AU HASARD BALTHAZAR (1966). A film with surprising relevance on generational patriarchal abuse and illiteracy within the Muslim world, reminiscent of the Taviani brothers film PADRE PADRONE (1977), which was set in Sicily featuring a brutally domineering father who pulls his 6-year old son out of school and literally banishes him to the isolation of a similar rocky, high country of Sardinia to watch his father’s flock of sheep, stealing his childhood, working him like a slave, which only stirs a sense of outrage and profound resentment against his father. Here as well, the Islamic religious teachings instruct children to listen to and obey their fathers, a paternal figurehead whose word is recognized as final and absolute and should be treated with absolute respect. The problem is in this remote, largely illiterate society where people live so closely to the land, living day to day, in cyclical rhythm with the seasons, the parents repeat the same mistakes of their own parents, using brutally harsh methods to raise their children, which may include severe beatings along with a neverending sense of parental discontent.
While there are only brief references to this subject, beating or mistreating children and animals is a striking theme that runs throughout the film, where we observe the aftereffects through the eyes and ears of three children on the verge of adolescence. One is his father’s older but less favored son, Ömer (Özkan Özen), who has dreams of killing his father and even procures a scorpion hoping he will do the job, or sneaks into his father’s room at night to open the bedside window hoping to aggravate his severe cough, later emptying the powdered medicine from his father’s prescribed capsules, or his best friend Yakup (Ali Bey Kayali) who is forced to witness his grandfather continually berate his own father, reducing him to tears as he refuses to stand up to him, and later has to witness his own father peeping through a window at his schoolteacher, (Selma Ergec), an attractive young woman who routinely receives community offerings of goat milk and bread, the one he has a crush on himself, even refusing to wash his teacher’s blood from his finger after he helps remove a splinter from her foot, and their cousin Yildiz (Elit Iscan), whose mother treats her like a slave and forces her to do all the housework as well as care for the more favored baby, a young girl who sits in tears at her parents door listening to the sounds of their lovemaking. There is an amusing scene where the boys observe a pair of mating donkeys in a field, and when they realize girls are watching the same thing, the boys instantly inflict their morally superior wrath of judgment on the girls, threatening them as they know their fathers would. Worse yet is an older boy without any parents, Davut (Tarik Sonmez), who tends to the village goats all day long, following them out onto dangerous mountainous crevices, herding them back to safety, yet he has scars on his back from a beating incurred from an irate villager who felt the need to impose his own judgment for eating a handful of nuts from a neighboring tree.
Despite the description, the film has such an unwavering stillness about it, offering no explanations, remaining completely nonjudgmental, showing a world in harmony with the universe and its own laws of nature, beginning with night and moving backwards to morning, divided into five sections which represent each time we hear the sound of the imam calling the community to prayer. Within these framed periods of time, children are forced to run errands for their parents, or are seen fast asleep in the fields in various states of rest, or sitting high atop a mountain cliff observing the magnificent calm of the mountains and sea beyond. Mostly because this film does such an excellent job establishing a world of people in harmony with their natural surroundings, where they stop and watch a solar eclipse or take shelter and wait out a passing rainstorm, these outbreaks of people behaving badly call attention to themselves, as they just don’t seem to fit. They feel like an irritant to the otherwise natural rhythm of life. It’s interesting that villagers place such importance to the wonderment and beauty of childbirth, yet as children grow older, they are looked upon for their more practical, utilitarian value. There’s an amusing scene where Yakup’s parents speak of the miracle of childbirth, where the innocence of babies moves them to tears, and they actually pull him out of school just to be able to hold his newborn brother, which is portrayed like a nativity scene. From outside the window we see the bleary eyed father trying to look in as we hear the natural sound of an ass braying. There’s another wonderful scene on a mountaintop where Ömer’s father is reaching over the ledge, where Ömer has thoughts of pushing him off, where the camera acts as his thoughts and quickly darts to the edge before swinging out into the air, leaving the audience to wonder just what really happened, as its hard to distinguish what’s real and what’s a dream.
While this is clearly one of the better looking films out there making spectacular use of ‘Scope, showing no signs of artifice or sentimentalism, it’s also overly simplistic with repetitive images, musical refrains, and an odd sounding braying horse that kept reminding me of Cloris Leachman as the grotesque Frau Blücher in YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN (1974), where just the mention of her name sent horses into a panic, yet it explores the roots of this irrational paternalistic rage that may have historical roots in explaining the continuing cycle of neverending wars in the region. Part of the reason radical fundamentalist Islam is spreading is due to the populist appeal it has from impoverished conditions in regions just like this one, which breeds a continuing cycle of illiteracy. This does not bode well for planting the seeds of diplomacy. But this film very innocently reveals that family by family, the disposable attitude parents display towards their own children may possibly explain how easy it is to recruit so many young suicide bombers, who are already made to feel so worthless. There’s an interesting scene at school where young children are made to chant “Love your nation before loving yourself.” Written, directed, and edited by Erdem, he seems to be placing his finger on the pulse of his surroundings, offering a glimpse of what awaits these still innocent children in the region before they are swept up by the wave of fanaticism and hate.
14.) YOUSSOU N’DOUR: RETURN TO GORÉE (Retour à Gorée)
Switzerland Luxembourg Senegal (110 mi) 2007 d: Pierre-Yves Borgeaud
The horrible reality about slavery was that it was a condition of commerce, buying and selling human beings. To that end, for over 300 years 20 to 100 million of among the best and brightest blacks in Africa were transported across the globe where 30 % died in transport on the slave ships while others were separated from their families and sent to different countries. Is it any wonder that today Africa continues to suffer from a perception of backwardness? This question could just as easily be asked of blacks in America today, wondering why other immigrant groups seem to advance economically ahead of blacks who historically lag behind. This question and this inter-continental connection lie at the heart of this film, yet it’s a surprisingly tender road documentary accentuating music. Grammy-winning Senegalese singer Youssou N'Dour noticed the connection between the percussive music played at the docks of Dakar, his hometown, and Mardi Gras music in New Orleans, or a spiritual connection about slavery that perhaps only American gospel singers can capture, but more importantly realized that jazz is a product of slavery, that African descendents in America invented an improvisational form of music that he traces back to his own African roots, claiming African music similarly defies form and relies heavily on an improvisational component. An idea spawned at the Cully Jazz Festival in 1999, he decided to re-arrange some of his own songs giving them greater vulnerability and emotional expanse through jazz. To that end, his arranger extraordinaire, blind Swiss pianist Moncef Genoud, wrote some arrangements for what they called “the project, the Return to Gorée,” recalling the history of the slave trade through music, eventually performing a live concert on Gorée Island where it all began in the “Maison des esclaves” or slave houses from the slave era days, a symbol of their last breath of freedom before they walked through the “Door of No Return” and were shipped across the ocean on slave ships. While not a concert film, this has a more relaxed, almost conversational style that instead focuses on time spent during the rehearsal sessions.
Simply put, N’Dour chooses some great musicians, as they are among the best in the world, but more importantly, each is attuned to the righteousness of their mission which is as much a spiritual journey, elevating the quality of the music heard throughout the film, as N’Dour travels to America with Genoud to seek them out, heading first to Atlanta to work with the Harmony Harmoneer gospel singing Turner brothers. Rehearsing together, while the intricate voices sound superb, immediately they discover a cultural rift, as N’Dour is a Muslim entering a Christian church for the first time, so when they start singing about Jesus, it doesn’t fit the song “My Hope Is in You,” where “you” refers to the next generation. The Turners are a bit stunned when they’re asked to stop using Jesus, something they don’t take lightly, but in the interest of “the project,” there’s a higher purpose than one’s own feelings. In New Orleans, we meet one of the originators, Idris Muhammad, who calls himself one of 8 percussionists growing up in his family which accounted for developing his own style early, who at the age of 15 played on the 1956 Fats Domino smash hit “Blueberry Hill,” later converting to Islam in the 60’s. He does an exquisite job describing the origins of the music of Mardi Gras and its multiple jazz rhythms, where the hypnotic percussive beat drives the second liners, a traditional dance style in New Orleans that traces its origins to the infamous Buddy Bolden. In New York they pick up perhaps the most surprising choice, Pyeng Threadgill, the daughter of A.A.C.M. jazz composer Henry Threadgill and choreographer Christina Jones. Known for advocating diverse vocal styles, she is perhaps the most subtle addition as she supplements N’Dour’s own vocal lead and is genuinely amazed at his superb improvisational vocal technique. In New York, they also pick up bassist James Cammack, who along with Muhammad both currently work with Ahmad Jamal, a pianist long admired by Miles Davis for his use of space and texture, precisely what N’Dour is looking for. More importantly, in a flash back to the 60’s, they briefly add the fiery poetry of New Jersey poet laureate Amira Baraka, who invites them all to his home. N’Dour treats this invitation as an honor, as if being invited into the home of an African chief, viewing Baraka and his intellectual curiosity and interest in Africa since the 1960’s as an integral part of “the project.” The jam session with Baraka is one of the dramatic high points of the film, as his words are spot on, nearly shouted at first: “At the bottom of the Atlantic ocean there is a railroad made of human bones, black ivory, black ivory,” following the path all the way back to their origins using words that are finally whispered: “Africa, Africa.”
When they travel to Europe, they pick up Austrian guitar phenom Wolfgang Muthspiel, Luxembourg trumpeter Ernie Hammes, and French harmonica player Grégoire Maret, all of whom add musicianship, brilliant technique, and multiple layers of texture. When this entire group rehearses together, adding bits and pieces of N-Dour’s sweet voice, the result is nothing less than phenomenal. The final leg on their tour is Dakar, where N’Dour is in his element. Rather than feature the dance-like Senegalese rhythms of N’Dour’s pop songs which endear him to the local population, this is a softer, much more contemplative style that might aptly be described as hushed, where every sound is meticulously crafted. If CD’s were selling outside the theater, I’m sure they would sell out, as there is a singularly distinguished, heartfelt tenderness to this music filled with eloquent, impressionistic colors so quietly underplayed, so by the time N’Dour’s voice soars above it all with intricate, soulful riffs, it’s nothing less than inspiring. The focus on Muhammad in the film is always rewarding as he’s a lion of a man, whether joining the drumming of the local djembe players in Dakar, offering a prayer afterwards, or buying a barracuda for dinner during a seaside visit next to rows of empty fishing canoes that line the beaches at night, where the man who actually caught his fish was pointed out. The film is surprisingly moving and powerful on so many different levels, most of it amazingly personal, though it doesn't address the controversy raised about the truth or fiction of that Door of No Return which may be more symbolic than historical, as historians claim the shore is too rocky for ships and the majority of the slave traffic flowed through the Senegal and Gambia Rivers, suggesting the story is a myth fabricated by Joseph Ndiaye, a Gorée Island slave house curator who was given a position of prominence in the film, elevated to the level of a griot, an all-knowing grandfatherly historian who reveals the ugly details of what happened here, where it’s hard to imagine the personalized inner reactions of the visiting black Americans who are themselves descendants of slaves. Especially poignant is the scene where the gospel singers break out into song right there on the spot at the Door of No Return, singing “Return to Glory,” where it’s as if time stops and death is put on hold until they’re finished. It’s a miraculous moment catching everyone by surprise, as it appears completely spontaneous and utterly appropriate. But Joseph Ndiaye will go on spending the rest of his life revealing the history of the slave trade, publicly denouncing it in multiple languages, as if bringing the wrath of God upon us all, while Youssou N’Dour offers angelic whispers of hope as light as moonbeams that gently guide us into a more harmonious future.
*Daniel Day Lewis – There Will Be Blood
Michael Fessbender – Hunger
Philip Seymour Hoffman – Synecdoche, New York (1) + Doubt (2)
Sean Penn – Milk
Mickey Rourke – The Wrestler
Ronit Elkabetz – The Band’s Visit
Sylvie Testud – La France (1) + The Vanishing Point (2)
Penélope Cruz – Elegy
Anne Hathaway – Rachel Getting Married
*Tilda Swinton – Julia
Kate Winslet – Revolutionary Road (1) + The Reader (2)
BEST SUPP ACTOR
*Brendan Gleeson – In Bruges
Saleh Bakri – The Band’s Visit
Gilles Lillouche – Tell No One
Kai Inowaki – Tokyo Sonata
Eddie Marsan – Happy-Go-Lucky
BEST SUPP ACTRESS
Viktoria Winge – Reprise
Penélope Cruz – Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Leila D’Issernio – Secret of the Grain
Aya Irizuki – Cherry Blossoms
*Dianne Wiest – Synecdoche, New York
Viola Davis – Doubt
*Paul Thomas Anderson USA There Will Be Blood
Tarsem India Great Britain USA The Fall
James Marsh Great Britain USA Man on Wire
Kiyoshi Kurosawa Japan Tokyo Sonata
Götz Spielmann Austria Revanche
Arnaud Desplechin France A Christmas Tale
Fatih Akin – The Edge of Heaven
Eran Kolirin – The Band’s Visit
Shira Geffen – Jellyfish
Joachim Trier and Eskil Vogt – Reprise
Arnaud Desplechin and Emmanuel Bourdieu – A Christmas Tale
*Charlie Kaufman – Synecdoche, New York
Robert Elswit – There Will Be Blood
Florent Herry – Times and Winds
*Colin Watkinson – The Fall
Jean-Claude Larrieu – Elegy
Akiko Ashizawa – Tokyo Sonata
Jean-Marc Selva – The Vanishing Point
BEST ENSEMBLE ACTING
The Edge of Heaven
Burn After Reading
Rachel Getting Married
A Christmas Tale
*Synecdoche, New York
BEST ART DIRECTION
There Will Be Blood
Synecdoche, New York
The Vanishing Point
The Edge of Heaven
Man on Wire
In Mom’s Head (La Tête de Maman)
The Band’s Visit
BEST ORIGINAL MUSIC
*Jonny Greenwood – There Will Be Blood
Giong Lim – Still Life
Ola Fløttum and Knut Schreiner – Reprise
Fred Avril and Xavier Jamaux – Sparrow
Krzysztof Penderecki – Katyn
A.R. Rahman – Slumdog Millionaire
*Man on Wire
Trouble the Water
Youssou N'Dour: Return to Gorée
Of Time and the City
Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired
The Life of Reilly
Standard Operating Procedure