TOP TEN FILMS SEEN IN THE YEAR 2004
1.) THE FOG OF WAR: Eleven Lessons From the Life of Robert S. McNamara 97
USA (95 mi) d: Errol Morris
A glimpse of history, I found this to be mandatory viewing, another one of these films that should be shown in classrooms around the world, this along with Kiarostami's AND LIFE GOES ON. Are you ever going to get a better analysis of the human condition than from someone who was actually there to help shape the face of the world, for better or for worse? How does one decipher the truth from a historical assessment this near to the events described, still filled with posturing, denials, rationalizations, represented by the charts and numbers that whiz by the screen in a blur, not even meant to be decipherable? From the first archival footage shown which moves in a deliberate pace matching the pulsating musical notes of Philip Glass, there is an atmosphere of something ominous. Subtitled "Eleven Lessons From the Life of Robert S. McNamara," perhaps unique in all of cinema, this film captures a supremely brilliant historical figure speaking personally for 90 minutes about his own first-hand involvement in shaping the history of the 20th century. Robert McNamara is 85 years old now, and he reflects back with clarity and a probing honesty, as if describing his memoirs, in a tone that can only be described as somber. The inflection in his voice, the rising and falling emotions, was riveting and truly compelling.
Personally, I am not concerned with the criticism that McNamara somehow got off easy since Morris didn't follow up and go for the jugular, as if this was "60 Minutes," or that McNamara was less than forthcoming, such as not recalling whether or not it was he who ordered the dropping of Agent Orange on his watch, as he struck me as a flawed, deeply conflicted human being, pridefully unapologetic, agonizing over the very essence of human limitations. It was clear to me that these were stunning admissions, unprecedented in their personal, historical detail as well as their intellectual and philosophical inquisitiveness, ultimately exploring the morality of human nature, which McNamara quickly concludes is not likely to change anytime soon.
2.) TRILOGY: THE WEEPING MEADOW 96
Greece (178 mi) d: Theo Angelopoulos
A poetic depiction of the dilemma facing refugees, who are cut off from their own roots, then despised in their new lands. From the comfort of our own vantage points, it’s all too easy to overlook just how many families have been decimated and torn apart by this ever-increasing human condition. Actually, it’s a sign of our times. Of all the Angelopoulos films I’ve seen, this was the easiest to comprehend, perhaps the most traditional. Typical of his style, this film has a sweeping visual command that produces some of the most memorable imagery of this or any other year. With Angelopoulos, the story many times remains hidden under the surface, shrouded in total obscurity, and is usually secondary to the immensity of the artistic mood and atmosphere, usually steeped in melancholy. But here, the film leads with dramatic moral themes of shame, regret, and loss, accentuated by war and the plight of refugees who are seen leaving their homeland, losing connections with their family, having to start over again, openly vying for labor freedoms or cultural tolerance, which in the case of Greek history was immediately suppressed by military force and a civil war. So even after the devastation of WWII, citizens continued to be rounded up and imprisoned or shot. The consequences of these historically relevant actions are the emotional rivers through which this film flows, mostly following the misfortunes of one woman, first in 1919 as a three-year-old refugee from Russia who has lost her entire family, until the end of the Greek civil war in 1949, complete with tragedies anew.
Again, the visual mastery is the most dominant aspect of the film, shot completely in somber grays and blacks, in rain or snow, always in darkness, as there isn’t an ounce of sunlight anywhere in this picture, featuring plenty of umbrellas and hats in a land where it is constantly raining, and featuring extraordinary footage of water. There are multiple scenes on the water’s shores where humans appear small and isolated, boats rowing in unison bearing black funeral banners, a makeshift town that is overcome by a flood, with inhabitants streaming out in boats, and by the end, a ship that travels to America, a place of perceived safety and freedom. Travel is a constant theme - always there are incessant images of different modes of travel. One sees trains, hears the sound of ships, sees boats, birds in flight, horse-drawn buggies, or people constantly walking, sometimes carrying luggage, as people are always leaving one place behind, forced to pursue new directions. Music is a constant source of renewal. It is the musicians who suggest new political freedoms, who meet in an abandoned building keeping their culture alive, and they act as the voice of the poets. There is a recurring image of white sheets fluttering in the breeze, a community of white sheets down the street from where people live. This image symbolizes forgetfulness, oblivion, a place where family members, memories, or pieces of history are quite literally forgotten. Music provides the nourishment of hope. There’s a wonderful scene of widows in black dancing around a nighttime bonfire carrying religious icons in their hands, or another of musicians gathering among the white sheets, forming a line along the shoreline. This film utilizes powerful sensations and climaxes in a scene of heart-rending anguish.
3.) ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND 96
USA (108 mi) d: Michel Gondry
One of the most wildly inventive and equally bizarre love stories you’re ever likely to encounter, filled with dazzling visual effects which, oddly enough, are actually at the heart of the story. Written by Charlie Kaufman (BEING JOHN MALKOVICH, ADAPTATION), who in films past, has overwritten to the point of excess, but not here. This is a tightly constructed, original and extremely detailed story, brilliantly edited and acted, with non-stop sequences of brilliance that continue throughout this film. Jim Carrey is the subdued introvert, playing against type, mumbling through most of the film, while Kate Winslet plays an outlandishly free-spirited Bohemian girl whose spontaneity initiates all the action, luring Carrey into her world, mind, body and soul, until she’s had enough of his passivity and is ready to spit him back out. In this film, she can, using a new technological procedure that wipes out all memories of a person. Once Carrey finds out what she’s done, he’s devastated, to say the least, and he envisions the world crumbling around him without her, which we see as he imagines it. He vows to rid his mind of all memories of her as well, but during the middle of the procedure, he has second thoughts, and with the help of some oddly inattentive technicians, Mark Ruffalo and Kirsten Dunst, who actually dance and smoke grass over his inert body, he’s able to spend some of the film’s more wondrous moments trying to hold onto as many shared memories as he can before losing her. Most of this is film heaven, some of it is exquisitely romantic, filled with the juicy sparks and language of love, but as the memories crumble and disappear before his and our eyes, all superbly realized cinematically, it also includes the feelings of desperation and inadequacy that accompany opening yourself up to another individual, leaving oneself vulnerable to their criticism, then having to overcome one’s own personal humiliations. This is a wonderful film about relationships that speaks volumes about the importance of even the worst moments, as it is from those horrendous blunders that we redeem ourselves with the next opportunities that come our way. The title comes from an Alexander Pope poem which, as the lines are being spoken in the film, fills the screen with some of the warmest, most heartfelt images of the magic of love reborn.
How happy is the blameless vestal’s lot!
The world forgetting, by the world forgot.
Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind!
Each pray’r accepted, and each wish resign’d;
Labour and rest, that equal periods keep;
“Obedient slumbers that can wake and weep:”
Desires compos’d, affections ever ev’n,
Tears that delight, and sighs that waft to Heav’n.
―Alexander Pope “Eloisa to Abelard” (1717)
4.) MOOLAADÉ 96
Senegal (124 mi) d: Ousmane Sembene
“It takes more than two balls to be a man!” With this, a husband defies the entire patriarchal hierarchy of his village, which has intimidated him into publicly beating his wife to force her daughters to submit to the African ceremony of female circumcision. Only later does the husband regret his actions and realize that he’s actually proud of her for refusing, for invoking the protection of Moolaadé. It is highly significant that this story is told without Western stylization, instead it is filled with African oral traditions, strong symbolism, bold colors and costumes, not to mention plenty of comic wit and sexually frank language, including some hilarious solidarity among the resistant women who initially enjoy teasing their opposition with an infectiously joyful glee. The women, who dominate the village landscape, as some town elders have two or three wives, all give strong performances and are particularly powerful in this film, as it is ultimately their decision that matters most. Sembene slowly builds the tension for the final showdown, using dance and soulfully expressive music, such as a flute or a single female voice, along with beautiful colorful imagery to enhance the dramatic explosiveness of the powerfully moving ending.
According to Sembene, 38 out of 54 African states continue to practice female circumcision, a male dominated custom that actually removes the clitoris, forever eliminating any female sexual pleasure, also subjecting the women to the possibility of AIDS, as the practice is not a medical procedure, but carried out by local village women, like midwives, using unclean knives. Despite the fact there is no religious reference to it in Christianity or Islam, this practice is so ingrained in African tradition that twenty years ago when the American Women’s Movement attempted to liberate African women from this practice, they were basically told to get lost, that it was cultural, and Americans had no business in their affairs. So making this film is a big deal as the potential social consequences are enormous.
5.) FAHRENHEIT 9/11 96
USA (116 mi) d: Michael Moore
I believe Michael Moore's film is most effective when looked at as a whole, as it builds throughout, and has a climactic effect by the end of the film. It penetrates a deeper level of complexity than his other films, allowing himself the freedom to explore a different kind of respect for human life than I've witnessed before, using characters that are unpredictably real, and who have been all too visibly damaged by the actions of a few. In a country that has been lied to and deceived, with some 900 Americans dead, 20,000 or more maimed, where the US has now killed 4 times more innocent civilians in Iraq, a country which had nothing to do with 9/11, than were killed by the al Qaeda attacks on the World Trade Centers - so for Michael Moore to mention the consequences of these actions is not propaganda, in my view, as is alleged, it is pointing out a position that the deaths of Americans and Iraqis are largely needless political deaths, and are not due to al Qaeda links in Iraq or any pressing defense of America's security, as we were lead to believe, but may instead be motivated by oil profits. So to then link the Bush wealth with the Saudi royal family's wealth is a news story, as they & their friends are getting rich on this war, which is NOT getting press coverage in the USA, which is the significance of the film, particularly in an election year. And in my view, he defends this position very well, building to an emotional climax which brings tears to the eyes of many.
The film is narrated throughout by Michael Moore, who is relentless, some may believe it goes too far over the top in an attempt to be sarcastic and darkly humorous, but based on his mission of urgency, deservedly so. But overall, it builds to an emotional peak by actually honoring the dead without the artifice seen in scripted news reports. While I enjoyed the well-written script, and the constant barbs at a humorously inept administration, Moore lays out his contention that Bush’s response to 9/11 was mired in wrongful and deceitful motives. Rather than pursuing al Qaeda, finishing the job in Afghanistan and Pakistan, which had near unanimous international approval, he instead installed figureheads in Afghanistan, men who were previously partners in his family’s oil ventures, whose role was to protect the building of natural gas pipelines in Afghanistan. Then, absent any weapons of mass destruction or collaboration between Saddam Hussein and the 9/11 al Qaeda attackers, and absent any international consensus, he then cynically directed the country's attention away from the real perpetrators and built a climate of fear in the United States, basically inventing intelligence to suit only their expressed aims so that the nation would support another military strike into Iraq, where again, his family and friends and members of the reigning plutocracy would reap more war profits. That is, basically, the film’s central message. This view is accompanied by the unrestrained emotional reactions from those American and Iraqi families who have paid the ultimate price so that the Bush one per-centers of the nation’s wealthiest could pursue unfettered business opportunities. What rings in our ears, along with a kaleidoscope of images and a swirling of emotions, is a soldier’s words in a letter written to his mother shortly before he was killed in Iraq, speaking of President Bush: “He got us out here for nothing."
6.) BEFORE SUNSET 95
USA (80 mi) d: Richard Linklater
How does one describe this film? One must definitively declare this a romantic film without the artifice of love, with a finale that is simply sublime and unforgettable. Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, who along with the director are credited with the screenplay, meet in Paris 9 years after a rapturous one-night affair (brief images remind us), which was described in a previous film, BEFORE SUNRISE, made by the same director in 1995, featuring the same two actors spontaneously meeting on a train to Vienna where the thought that they would never see one another again permeated their every waking moment, never leaving their last names or addresses, as that would have been too conventional. However, before they departed, they agreed to meet after six months. The earlier film ends ambiguously, never revealing the outcome. Now Hawke is in Paris at the end of a book tour, speaking to a small gathering at a bookstore about his novel, a fictionalized account of that affair. He is asked about that very ambiguity, and answers vaguely, but sees out of the corner of his eye, the girl with whom he had the affair. As he has about an hour before he must leave for the airport, flying back to New York, the two of them very carefully re-acquaint themselves through conversation, slowly feeling each other out and reconnecting their lives while walking through the back streets of Paris, sitting in parks, and at a café, even taking a boat ride on the River Seine before his limo driver meets them. For about 70 minutes, the camera follows them in real time with a succession of tracking shots, where every gesture, every wince, every smile is captured. The two are smart, attractive, funny, and real, and the time is spent with the two of them talking non-stop, rarely stopping to pause or reflect. My only complaint is that they talk too much. While what they have to say to one another is genuinely moving at times, the non-stop verbiage is also an onslaught to the viewers, reminding one of Woody Allen’s romantic best or Eric Rohmer, with flourishes of anxiety and self-deprecating wit, but more challenging and intense, continually searching to find the right thing to say, with gushes of honest, unpretentious realism. Where it all leads to is a wonderment. Very tasteful, nothing overdone, everything exactly in synch with these two characters who are brilliantly effortless, especially Delpy, who singlehandedly steers this film into one of the most beautiful endings captured on film...to the rhythm and grace of Nina Simone who sings “Just in Time.”
7.) NOTRE MUSIQUE 95
France Switzerland (80 mi) d: Jean-Luc Godard
This is the first Godard film I've seen in some 20 years that I could really enjoy from start to finish. And while it has the Godard imprint all over every frame, he doesn't go over our heads this time. Instead he offers a concise, beautifully constructed and lyrical film essay discussing the ravages of war that continues to catch the viewer off guard, that features the writer-director himself as a class professor introducing images to his students, asking them to reflect on the dual meanings, the shot, the countershot. Centering on the inquisitive nature of a French-Jewish journalist who opposes war in all forms, she asks: "Why haven't revolutions been started by the most humane people?" to which Godard answers, "Because they start libraries," or later someone states, "Killing a man to defend an idea isn't defending an idea. It's killing a man." There’s a wonderful scene that follows where she interviews a Palestinian writer who asserts that since 1949, Israel has become a myth while Palestinians are reality. People are only interested in Palestinians, he suggests, due to their relationship with their arch enemy, Israel. If they had any other enemy, no one would be the least bit interested in Palestinians. Look at the lack of interest exhibited today in the plight of Native Americans, who are utilized in a somewhat comical role in this film, as if they’ll do anything, dress in costume, sit on a horse, anything to get a laugh, to generate relevance. Loosely constructed in three sections which are identified as Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise, the film asks philosophical questions throughout, providing extremely eloquent imagery with perfect accompanying music. Using fictional, archival, and documentary footage, the pace moves very quickly from some brilliantly abstract opening war-torn imagery, to an examination of the recently war-ravaged Sarajevo, which is in the process of reconstruction and exhibits an eerie calm, to an idyllic lakeside that seems to represent a final resting place, oddly protected by US Marines, accentuated by the transcendent music of Arvo Pärt. There’s a wonderfully constructed balance between humor, philosophy, literature, history, music, and of course, Godard’s celebrated imagery, each contributing to and enhancing the whole.
8.) THE TASTE OF TEA 95
Japan (143 mi) d: Katsuhito Ishii
This is one of the most joyous film experiences of the year. All this film does is follow a family around for a while in their small mountain village, allowing each one to explore their own individuality. Style-wise, this is a brilliant screenplay and is a hilariously inventive film, not afraid to use surreal, out of body experiences, or subtitled sections when no one is saying anything, films within the film, or brilliant animé imagery side by side with other kinds of colorful animation. What works here is that these techniques were not just used for show, but they were essential in revealing character. This film was such a joy to watch that you didn’t even realize, until the end of the film, how well you had come to know each of the members of this family. Mood is essential, and they all had different moods. Collectively then, we learn something about a part of ourselves, as it taps into places in our own subconscious where we’re not used to looking. So this film is really revitalizing. The pace of the film is perfect, as each sequence flows so effortlessly into the next, weaving in and out of everyone’s lives. It’s a quiet yet jubilant evolution balancing comical moments with the meditative imagery of a river or of mountains or of a still moment. While we might have some quibbles, and some may think perhaps this film is too cute, but this is how the film explores the inner worlds, with an unusually poignant visual flair, and we are never disappointed. The film constantly reinvents itself. Oddly, it would probably be appreciated just as much by children aged 8 and above, as I believe there’s something in it for everyone. Ishii is known for the animation sequence in KILL BILL VOL 1, but here he’s allowed the freedom to develop his own story and just let it go and air his imagination out.
9.) THE RETURN 95
Russia (106 mi) 2003 d: Andrey Zvyagintsev
Described by this first time director as “a mythological look at human life,” this is one of the more starkly austere and emotionally spare films one could see, completely absent of anything unnecessary, but always direct and to the point, reminding me of an earlier, somewhat similar film, DISTANT, as the feelings in this film are so grim and remote. The film marks seven days, beginning with the introduction of two young brothers. One day, their father, absent for 12 years, known by only a single photograph, has inexplicably returned. Again, without any explanation, he takes the boys on a journey, presumably a fishing vacation, where they slip further and further away from civilization, into the most remote wilderness, eventually landing on a desolate island where they pitch their tents. The older brother is glad his father has returned, while the younger brother isn’t even sure if this is his father or not, thinking he may be leading them astray to slit their throats, for all he knows, and sulks and disobeys his father every chance he gets. This father uses few words, but offers severe and sometimes brutal consequences for disobedient behavior, which includes smacking these kids around, bloodying their noses, leaving them out in the rain, which makes them wonder why he’s returned at all. But they’re so used to his absence that they continue to ignore him even when he’s present, seeing him as little more than a stranger. Their rebellion leads to a sort of LORD OF THE FLIES mentality, as if they don’t adhere to his rule, then they’re really turning their backs on all rules, which leaves them in a precarious position. His absence is never discussed, no questions about his past are ever asked, and little, if any emotion is ever exhibited by the father. His behavior is bewildering, yet the children offer unbelievably authentic performances. Perhaps his absence is seen as an act against nature, and it comes to represent a kind of allegorical spiritual death, and only through the realization of death can one celebrate the meaning of life. For a film that offers few emotions throughout the journey, it certainly pays off with one of the more explosively emotional endings imaginable, as it is wordless, yet moves effortlessly and uncompromisingly to its natural conclusion, summing up the entire film in the last breathtakingly beautiful ten minutes. The original music by Andrei Dergachyov is hauntingly eerie and atmospheric, and at the end, solemn to the core.
10.) TARNATION 95
USA (105 mi) 2003 d: Jonathan Caouette
What seems to be overlooked in evaluating this film is that it is, ultimately, a transforming love story through art. And it is an opening for the viewers to question our own abilities to accept, as one of us, the mentally challenged. The mentally ill are all too often relegated to the back rooms somewhere, out of sight, out of mind. Here, Caouette has the courage to place his mother front and center, showing us the woman he loves. And brain damaged as she is, if he’s not ashamed of her, then why should we be of anyone who is similarly afflicted? If ever we’re to bridge the gaps of intolerance, doesn’t it begin within our own dysfunctional families? I believe that is the ultimate challenge of this film.
Documentaries never looked like this before. This is a beautifully structured, heartfelt, and eye-opening film. Using an experimental style that is punctuated by neverending streams of light, making incredible use of color, narration, editing, and very soft, intimate music that offers the viewer a glimpse of how Caouette feels about the various stages of his life, this is an excruciatingly personal, autobiographical film. Caouette combines hyper-expressive film elements from his own family history, particularly his mother, who spent much of her life institutionalized after receiving electric shock treatment, 2 sessions a week for 30 weeks, eventually leading to a lithium overdose, or the witnessing of his mother’s rape at an early age during a distressing bus ride across the country, providing early photographs when she worked as a model, using a recurring theme of beauty and joy, which is how he thinks of her even now. Caouette blends parallel images of his own adolescent development, including his experience with abusive foster parents mixed with attention grabbing drug use and suicide attempts, acting out imaginary characters of his own creation, his discovery that he is gay, his first boy friend, also unusually creative spurts, such as when he was the director of his own high school musical production of David Lynch’s BLUE VELVET, using the music of Marianne Faithfull. There is an especially moving sequence of meeting and discovering his true love in New York, which is accentuated by the Magnetic Fields song “Strange Powers,” which feels so hopeful and optimistic, not in a dreamy sense, but realistically. With much of the film shot in his own apartment, we see film posters of Fassbinder’s QUERELLE, or Kubrick’s THE SHINING, along with other artworks hanging on the wall. Of noticeable interest is how effortlessly the filmmaker expresses the fact that he’s gay, so matter of factly. It is the one aspect of his life that has not been tarnished, where he feels comfortable and relaxed about himself. This is easily the healthiest aspect of his life. What’s more unsettling is the front and center staging of some of the more incoherent and unglamorous sides of his mother, turning so much of the spotlight on her that many viewers come unhinged and start calling it exploitive. However, as this film is largely a valentine “to” his mother, then showing us who she is, in totality, is showing us who he loves.
Again, every color has been overly saturated, images stretched and reformulated to create new art forms, all blended together with an intensely personal 3rd person narration that is unspoken, but is instead read like subtitles on the screen, using such eloquently simplistic methods to allow a distance, a detachment in describing tortuous realities that have an inner life of their own, eating and gnawing at him, even entering his dreams, but which drives him to create a stunningly unique work, a transforming artistic experience. I’m not sure Caouette’s experimental style is completely new, certainly underground filmmakers from Andy Warhol to Stan Brakhage have devised similar looking films, but his use of such a gorgeously compelling experimental style as a cathartic means of excoriating such intensely personal and very real demons from his life in order to create a sense of being normal does seem revelatory.
*David Gulpilil – The Tracker
Hiroyuki Sanada – The Twilight Samurai
Ewan McGregor – Young Adam
Jamie Foxx – Ray
Li Xuejian – South of the Clouds
Birol Ünel – Head On
Paul Giamatti - Sideways
*Helen Buday – Alexander’s Project
Isabelle Carré – Beautiful Memories
Charlize Theron – Monster
Kate Winslet – Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Julie Delpy – Before Sunset
Anne Reid – The Mother
Imelda Staunton – Vera Drake
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Ivan Dobronravov – The Return
Peter Youngblood Hills – AKA
Peter Sarsgaard – Kinsey
Lucas Black – Friday Night Lights
Jamie Foxx - Collateral
*Thomas Hayden Church - Sideways
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Shirley Henderson – Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself
Cate Blanchett – Coffee and Cigarettes
Chloë Sevigny – The Brown Bunny
Sharon Warren – Ray
Kyra Sedgwick – The Woodsman
*Natalie Portman - Closer
BEST ENSEMBLE ACTING
*Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
BEST ART DIRECTION
*Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter...and Spring
Trilogy: The Weeping Meadow
Taste of Tea
Errol Morris USA The Fog of War
Richard Linklater USA Before Sunset
Michel Gondry USA Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Alexander Payne USA Sideways
Andrey Zvyagintsev Russia The Return
*Rolf de Heer Australia The Tracker + Alexander’s Project
Tsai Ming-liang Taiwan Goodbye, Dragon Inn
Fatih Akin Germany Head On
Jean-Luc Godard France Notre Musique
Zabou and Jean-Claude Deret – Beautiful Memories
Michael Moore – Fahrenheit 9/11
Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy – Before Sunset
Jan Henrik Stahlberg – Quiet As a Mouse
Jean-Luc Godard – Notre Musique
Fatih Akin – Head On
Pascale Breton – Illumination
Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor – Sideways
Baek Dong-hyun – Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter...and Spring
Mikhail Krichman – The Return
Ellen Kuras – Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Christopher Doyle – Hero
*Andreas Sinanos – Trilogy: The Weeping Meadow
Yves Cape – Buffalo Boy
Yorgos Arvanitis - Process
BEST ORIGINAL MUSIC
Philip Glass – The Fog of War
*Andrei Dergachyov – The Return
Bark Ji-woong – Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter...and Spring
Charlie Haden – A House on a Hill
Julie Delpy – Before Sunset
Tony Gatlif – Exiles
John Cale - Process