TOP TEN FILMS SEEN IN THE YEAR 2005
(films not released or shown in Chicago until 2005)
1.) BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN A
USA (134 mi) 2005 d: Ang Lee
Every once in a while a film comes along that changes our perceptions so much that cinema history thereafter has to arrange itself around it. Think of Thelma and Louise or Chungking Express, Blow-Up or Orlando — all big films that taught us to look and think and swagger differently. Brokeback Mountain is just such a film. Even for audiences educated by a decade of the New Queer Cinema phenomenon — from Mala Noche and Poison to High Art and Boys Don’t Cry — it's a shift in scope and tenor so profound as to signal a new era.
—B. Ruby Rich from The Guardian, September 23, 2005, B Ruby Rich on Brokeback Mountain | Film | The Guardian
If you can’t fix it, Jack, you gotta stand it.
—Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger)
Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana adapt a 1997 E. Annie Proulx short story from Close Range, Wyoming Stories, extending the parameters of the original story, which in the book was narrated in third person by the character Ennis Del Mar, while retaining the haunting poetry on the page. It’s hard not to remember that one year after the story was published on the night of October 6, 1998, Matthew Shepard, a young 21-year old gay man from Laramie, Wyoming, about the same age and near the same place as the two portrayed in the story, was lured away from a campus bar by men who told him they were gay, tied to a fence, pistol whipped and beaten, then left for dead in near freezing conditions where he eventually died. This horrific murder brought national and international attention to hate crime legislation at the state and federal levels, where in October 2009, the United States Congress passed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act (commonly called the “Matthew Shepard Act”), and on October 28, 2009 President Barack Obama signed the legislation into law.
In a tale of anguished souls living in the shadows of similar lore, perhaps Ang Lee’s most heartbreakingly tender film, shot largely in the pristine mountainous wilderness of Alberta’s Rocky Mountains, with cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto capturing its raw beauty, this is a touchingly understated film with few words, using silence and natural sounds, with exquisite pacing where the situation onscreen explains itself. From the opening shots of a desolate town in Signal, Wyoming back in the summer of 1963, we’re immediately immersed in a dusty shithole of a town that looks totally run down, where the space is larger than the people who inhabit it. Two guys are waiting for a job without speaking. Local rancher Dennis Quaid tersely issues them their instructions in a cowboy vernacular that is barely understood by the uninformed. One guy tends to the sheep high up on Brokeback Mountain, sleeping without a fire out under the stars, supposedly protecting them from intruders or outside elements like coyotes, protecting the rancher from losses to his herd, while the other picks up weekly food and supplies, and tends to the camp, where both meet only at breakfast and dinner. Jake Gyllenhaal is Jack Twist, a down on his luck rodeo rider, while Heath Ledger is Ennis Del Mar, a tightlipped, dirt poor ranch hand, both high school drop outs with few prospects, neither yet twenty. Interestingly, few words are spoken between them, as the wonder of the outdoors literally fills the screen with extraordinary natural beauty, where the sheep roam in perfect harmony through the lush, pastoral landscape. Before they know it, with the help of several bottles of whisky, words are flowing, surprising themselves, as they naturally feel an ease with one another, which leads to hard-fought-against romantic inclinations. They spend a summer together, which haunts them for the rest of their lives, as despite the hardships it’s easily the most intensely personal experience they will ever know.
Through the passing of time, they each get on with their lives, as Jack rides the rodeo circuit in Texas and marries Lureen, Anne Hathaway, a cowgirl who catches his eye, whose father has earned a fortune selling farm equipment, while Ennis marries a local sweetheart Alma, Michelle Williams, a revelation in the film who happens to be Ledger’s real-life wife, adding warmth and personal intimacy, where their scenes together feel naturally lived-in and real. Neither man is particularly good at fatherhood or family affairs, as each comes from scarred, emotionally deprived backgrounds. Four years later Jack sends notice of a visit and arrives on Ennis’s doorstep one day, where his wife catches them kissing in an intense embrace, but says nothing. When they leave together on a supposed fishing trip, pain is etched all over her face, which has a ripple effect to the whole family. This film expresses the inexpressible. Ennis knows the times and knows that in this country, neighbors wouldn’t stand for two guys running a ranch together, “This thing grabs on to us again in the wrong place, we’ll be dead,” so their relationship is haunted by a perpetually unfulfilled longing, like a lost Eden, split between the freedom of the wilderness and the restrictions placed on them by a sexually repressed society. Up until now, the film has a kind of Douglas Sirk, wrenchingly melodramatic feel to it, where the men’s lives unravel and become unhinged in ways that on the surface resembles anyone else’s disappointments, yet their secret visits remain under wraps, something no one can talk about.
Once the years take their toll on the men’s lives, their children grown, their home life in ruins, their visits together a painful reminder of all that they’re missing, only then does the film elevate itself and reach for more, in a stunning confessional scene where they can’t seem to leave each other, where Jack blurts out “I wish I knew how to quit you,” surrounded by the majesty of spectacular scenery, where men are reduced to tears, tiny creatures dwarfed by the immensity of it all, yet what matters most about these individuals suddenly surges to the forefront, demanding our attention and our respect. It’s a startling moment that takes us a bit by surprise, stunned to realize the complexity of their lives and what they mean to each other only at that moment. It’s achingly real, and it continues on that brilliantly developed high plain until the end. While the film is beautifully understated, where the marketing scheme downplays the gay aspect and suggests a “universal” love story, it is unquestionably a gay sexual attraction and love affair, with explicit sex scenes that are both brutally rough and surprisingly tender, where Ennis mumbles “This is a one-shot thing we got goin’ on here,” though both are filled with the Western cowboy ethic that forbids even the thought of such things, where in their minds it’s associated with sordid stories of violence and murder. Therefore it’s a love kept under wraps, continually closeted and under denial, disguised as a fishing trip, yet it’s a lingering and haunting presence in their lives, where each ends up in a loveless marriage, where loneliness defines their every aching moment, especially Ennis, who only grows more isolated and alone after leaving his wife, eking out a barebones existence working seasonal cattle roundups. When he receives occasional visits from his older teenage daughter who’s nearly grown up, Alma Jr. (Kate Mara), seen at about the same age as he was in the opening, the film comes full circle, where she’s going her own way and making her own choices.
A story of thwarted love, eloquent in its mute despair, where gay love has never been so sacred, yet what’s most alluring is the magnificent natural beauty of the Edenesque world that surrounds them, where the luxurious color of 35mm film never looked better, making the digital look of what passes for film today look antiquated and ugly, where the entire industry lost its soul by selling out the opulence and grandeur of real film. Despite their distance, Jack in Texas and Ennis in Wyoming, they come together again and again, year after year in the most remote locations, knowing that if caught they could be hog-tied and murdered by fellow cowboys (a reminder, as B. Ruby Rich explains in discussing the tragedy of Matthew Shepard, of exactly how provisional and geographically specific contemporary tolerance remains), before heading back out into the “real” world of emptiness, alcoholism and disappointment. There is a plot twist near the end where Ennis’s post card to Jack is returned marked “deceased,” a dumfounding moment that sends him into a tailspin, reflected in the marvelous use of a flashback style moment where he imagines what actually happened as he’s listening to Lureen dispassionately describe what happened to Jack over the phone. For Lureen it’s a moment over and done with, while for Ennis, the loss is indescribable. Heath Ledger is astonishing, especially at the end, as he perfectly captures the essence of the poetry that wordlessly expresses love and longing. The visit to Jack’s parents house, so quiet and spare, is near perfect, elevating the spirit of the man who isn’t there to the forefront, reminding us of the unfathomable depths of the still unexplored regions of love. It’s a devastating moment and one of the most powerful scenes in all of cinema, tragically haunting the viewer for years to come with weighted emotions and images permanently etched into the core of our very souls.
2.) REPATRIATION A
South Korea (149 mi) 2003 d: Dong-won Kim
Any description doesn't really do justice to the emotional power and impact of this film, a brilliant documentary that provides an extraordinary picture of the split in North and South Korea, opening in 1992 with the filmmaker meeting two North Korean political prisoners convicted of espionage in South Korea in the 1960’s, who were brutalized and tortured in prison, but released some 30 to 40 years later, now living in the filmmaker’s neighborhood, which arouses the suspicions and ire of some of his neighbors. Meeting these two led to other long-term prisoners, who affectionately become known as the old grandpas, men who remained committed to the aims of North Korea, despite their lengthy confinements, and committed to returning to their homeland. The filmmaker provides his own narration, at one point can be heard saying he grew up believing documentary films could change the world, and follows this group for ten years, documenting how they survive, given their second class status, as they are given menial jobs and live in dire poverty. Many family members refuse to see them based on the so-called disgrace they brought to the family, which leads to agonizing moments of personal anguish and pain. These men remain loyal to one another, brothers, comrades, and meet periodically to share food, embolden each other’s spirits, and sing political songs. When we meet them on camera, these are intelligent and distinguished men, proudly self-sufficient, considerate of others, and filled with the same lofty ideals of their youth, which means they continue to openly criticize the South Korean government, who they all consider a puppet of the United States. They were initially sent by North Korea to attempt to encourage reunification before they were captured, to convince others that there was but one homeland, and to help rid Korea of outside foreign interests, namely the influence of the United States that was engaged in international sanctions against North Korea, which continued to divide the country politically and economically. By listening to these men describe how they endured years of systematic torture, we learn of the government’s long-term conversion program to torture 500 political prisoners into renouncing their communist beliefs while in prison, dividing the prisoners into the “converted,” the 300 or so that have renounced, who were subsequently released from prison early, and who have had to live with the shame and personal humiliation of giving in to the conversion, the 100 “to-be-converted,” who steadfastly refused to submit and served their entire sentences, and the 100 that died while in prison. Those that never gave in, “the unconverted,” explained that the atrocities imposed upon them were such vile and subhuman actions that it only angered and motivated them all the more to resist. These unforgettable subjects are unbelievably humane, with their dignity intact, despite their poor health and the despicable treatment they were each forced to endure.
By the turn of the century, a changing political climate leads to a more liberal view of repatriation, a program of limited prisoner and cultural exchange. But as the day draws near where some may actually return to North Korea, we see a whirlwind of obstacles that stand in their way, self-interest groups that flair up wanting to use them for their own political ends, both governments declaring premature victories, turning repatriation into a propaganda spectacle of anger and street demonstrations, which is certainly contrasted against the quiet dignity of the old grandpas, who have steadfastly endured, whose tender and profound humanity is showcased in this film. There’s a wonderful scene of one of these men sitting on a public bench arguing about free speech with a fellow citizen that starts calling him names, when he rises to the occasion and denounces the man openly and publicly, telling him it’s conservative views like his that are preventing reunification from becoming a reality. The end of the film spirals a bit out of control, and slows down as it attempts to cover too much ground, following governments and protestors on both sides, as their celebrity status creates such media coverage that it turns into a replica of the overzealous propaganda Elian Gonzalez fiasco, each side endlessly pounding their respective points of view, losing the immediacy and quiet, personal intimacy that was established earlier in the film by simply listening to the old men, who are wonderfully complex and emotionally appealing on all levels throughout this film. Perhaps their finest moment as a group is captured seeing them playfully splash water on one another in a rare, unguarded moment at a riverside, completely carefree, ageless men behaving like children on a warm summer’s day.
3.) THE WORLD A
China Japan France (143 mi) 2004 d: Jia Zhang-ke
Not nearly as sharply political as PLATFORM, a film that depicted the Cultural Revolution of the 60’s, beginning with huge amounts of energy and optimism that eventually deflates before our eyes, like letting the air out of a balloon. Now, in this vision of the modern world, China creates an image of success, building huge expansive projects for the future, but behind these largely superficial structures lie the invisible and lonely lives of the people who built them or work there, who couldn’t be more powerless, more dehumanized, lost in a spiritual vacuum despite claims that modern technology brings us all closer together. The people who inhabit this world couldn’t be farther apart.
Incredibly ambiguous, and fairly bleak, yet a sumptuously beautiful film, cinematography by Yu Lik-wai, art direction by Wu Lizhong, perhaps as gorgeous a film as one could ever hope to see, set almost entirely amidst a real life theme park setting outside Beijing, which has a one-third scale Eiffel Tower and Arc de Triumph, or the Sphinx and the Pyramids, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the Taj Mahal, St Peters Square, London Bridge and Big Ben, or Manhattan, still with the twin towers, with Vegas style showgirls in stunningly colorful costumes dancing to enhance the customer’s enjoyment. Along the outside, a monorail slowly creeps, like a caterpillar, along the elevated tracks making a complete round of the park in fifteen minutes. The filmmaker has a truly remarkable eye for placing his characters in an imaginatively conceived architectural wonderland, and freely moves his camera around, creating some dazzling effects. The look and pace of the film is mesmerizing and has the feel like we are gliding effortlessly through another dimension, perhaps floating underwater, with Hou Hsiao-hsien’s musical master Lim Giong providing the music mix that pulsates so effortlessly over these images, with recurring themes reminding us of the rhythms and repetitions of the daily routines.
Tao, Zhao Tao, is one of the performers introduced in an eye-opening tracking shot, which weaves in and out of a backstage dressing room, where beautiful women are dressed up in flamboyant costumes. She appears level-headed and somewhat reserved, despite the fact her jewelry sounds like bells announcing her arrival wherever she walks, and she does not rush headlong into a relationship with her new boy friend, Taisheng, Chen Taishen, from her home town, a chain smoker clad in a black leather jacket, one of the security guards on the grounds. Despite his claims to fidelity, and her insistence upon it, he’s cheating on her with a clothes designer, Qun, Huang Yiqun, who runs a sweatshop and hasn’t seen her husband in eight years, not since he was smuggled out of China on a boat bound for Europe, now living in Paris, one of only a handful who survived. She yearns to obtain a passport and meet him there. In this setting, young workers from all over the country come to find work and immerse themselves in this exotic labor pool that is no different than other worker camps, as what initially seems happy and colorful on the outside becomes more claustrophobic and suffocating day after day, as the workers are confined to tiny rooms and small, cramped hallways. The dressing room resembles a typical basement with pipes running along the ceiling. Here, individuals are cut off and lose their connections to their families. There’s a constant feeling of displacement and alienation, where feelings cannot be expressed, covered up by an incessant preference for cell phone text messaging, by partying and jubilant celebration, and living a life of artificially contrived happiness.
In one ridiculous moment at a party, Tao receives a call on her cell phone, and the person placing the call is the man sitting next to her, but she is forced to go outside to hear, where he is conveniently waiting for her, skillfully planning how to manipulate her sexual favors into his business travels. We see another showgirl eventually succumb to this temptation, sleeping with the boss in order to get a promotion. In a key scene, newly arrived Russian dancers are forced to surrender their passports, which makes it easier to exploit them later. In a heartbreaking moment, Tao sees one of the dancers, perhaps her only friend, has been forced into prostitution. In another sequence, one of the less fortunate workers from her home town is killed in an industrial construction accident, and in an eerie moment, the family which has traveled a long arduous journey to get there, wordlessly receive monetary compensation for their son. These are bleak economic realities interspersed into the colorful artificialities of this surreal dream world.
The film seems connected not by reality, or through established relationships, but by a desire for something different, something better somewhere else, which is what drove this theme park to be built in the first place, as a kind of wish fulfillment for ordinary and mundane lives. This kind of dreamy alternative mood is wonderfully expressed through the use of animated cell phone calls, creating extremely colorful cartoon sequences where characters may be seen flying through the air, eventually discovering entirely new worlds. In contrast, Tao never seems to leave the grounds of this park and feels eternally stuck in limbo, which suggests that where she is now is better than where she came from. In a staggering image, a plane is taking off over the solitary concrete columns of a construction zone where Tao confesses, “I don’t know anyone who’s ever been on an airplane.” Despite the length of the film, we learn very little about the workers, which is precisely the point, whose lives, even their connection to one another are largely tucked away and hidden from view, compartmentalized, like interchangeable parts, trapped in a virtual reality existence with no way out. In this world, the need for hope is strong, but the lack of hope appears stronger and seems more likely to prevail. Despite all the surface razzamatazz, lurking underneath are the seeds of oblivion.
4.) CACHÉ (HIDDEN) A
Austria France Germany (117 mi) 2005 d: Michael Haneke
Perhaps not on the same level as, but in the same manner as Dreyer, Ozu, Bresson, or Tarkovsky, Haneke's formalistic execution is so flawless and precise that he disciplines the audience to reconfigure their conceptual vision of film, using a cinema by reduction, reducing what’s shown onscreen to only the barest minimum, employing subtlety to an extreme degree. An appropriate title for this film, which is an elegantly filmed, internationally implicating whodunnit that offers so few clues that by the end of the film, the viewer is required to return to all the scenes of the crime and come up with their best explanation. That, ultimately, is the power of this film, that it so purposefully motivates the viewer to think for themselves in trying to figure this out. Opening with a static shot overlooking a street into a facing apartment, we sit there awhile, as if in a state of pause, and reflect on what we see. I kept looking for Raymond Burr with a suitcase in a window, or leaning more towards the Clue factor, searching for the butler, with a kitchen knife, in the dining room. This simply sets the stage for what follows, as it emphasizes how the viewer might approach the practice of watching carefully. The residents of that apartment, Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche, both working professionals with a moody, yet intelligent teenage son, have received a video tape that simply watches their home over an extended period of time. This sends them into a series of questions, such as who or why, and how? Their life continues pretty much as it did before, until they receive even more specific video tapes from someone who has personal access to their lives, who is in fact spying on them, but again, they do not know who or why. When they go to the police, since no direct threat has been made on their lives, the police refuse to intervene. However their nerves begin to fray, which is expressed by Auteuil stepping out into the street and nearly getting his head taken off by a speeding cyclist, yelling out “You dickhead!” The cyclist, who is black, stops to confront Auteuil about the nature of his offensive comments.
Auteuil’s apartment is the picture of wealth and comfort, spacious, with an entire wall lined with books, in the center a giant TV screen. He works as a television literary reviewer, where we see him working to edit out much of the dense, analytical discussion in favor of the more incendiary views sure to heighten the ratings. Auteuil has a hunch who the culprit may be, but he refuses to share it with his wife, claiming it is irrelevant, which sends her into a rage, an internalized shock and awe, completely disgusted with him, unable to believe he doesn’t include her and what could potentially happen to her as relevant. Through a series of dreams and personal conversations, we learn more about Auteuil’s childhood, that an Algerian family lived and worked at his parent’s country estate when he was age 6, and they had a child about his age. At that time a historical event took place when Algeria, then a colony of France, was fighting France for its independence, an event known as Black Night on October 17, 1961, when residents of an Algerian neighborhood in Paris were rounded up and 200 of them drowned mysteriously in the Seine River, which included both parents of the Algerian family living with Auteuil. The family decided to adopt the orphaned Algerian boy, but Auteuil was jealous of all the attention he received, and devised a plan to get rid of him. It is this boy, now a grown man, Majid, that Auteuil suspects of getting his revenge.
Interspersed with this information, we see an international television news report about the current war in Iraq, as people of Arabic descent are rounded up and arrested, many of them tortured or killed, events that have become so commonplace that they are ignored, hardly stirring up any emotions any more, events that seem to mirror the historic events in Paris some 40 years earlier. No one in the film ever questions the war. And while its presence is felt, in particular the methodology of war, which certainly includes surveillance techniques, Italy, France, England, and the United States, a coalition of the willing, seem to be a gang of majority white citizens rounding up and attacking largely Arabic citizens, with the invading nations showing little or no regard to any cultural understanding or respect, or any regard to the consequences of their actions when so many innocents are implicated, harmed, or even killed by these methods. Instead this aggression is fueled by ammunitions and raw military power. Auteuil, living as comfortably as he does, feels no guilt or responsibility for either his own complicity with the eventual eviction of a 6-year old Algerian kid from his home, or with the unfolding international events. In fact, if Auteuil is to represent the behavior of the privileged, he’s not interested in learning the truth about any of these events, which he’d just as soon ignore and forget, as he’s too busy placing the blame on others, devising ways to threaten them, anything to avoid any personal responsibility. Similarly, this is how news coverage is received in the United States, as we hear from only one side, never from the Iraqi or Arabic point of view, which keeps the truth of the current occupation “hidden” from unsuspecting viewers who, like Auteuil, feel no guilt or responsibility.
What we are asked to do is question the validity of media information and our own understanding of how we view ourselves in relationship to others, how quickly do we implicate others, how easily are we ourselves manipulated, how long do we live in denial and fail to implicate our own actions? This just scratches the surface of some of the unanswered questions of the film. As we learn Auteuil lied to his parents, blaming an innocent Algerian boy, it is significant no one listed to or believed the Algerian kid. Only the white kid was believed. This theme continues into adulthood, as Auteuil refuses to listen to or believe what Majid or his son in the film are telling him, instead he’s quick to blame and threaten both of them. Majid, on the other hand, takes a differing view, which is cinematically shocking, in what may culturally be a noble and dignified act. The pain and suffering of all those involved are unintended consequences, something the United States military calls “collateral damage.” We never learn who initiated the surveillance, but the final shot of the film running over the credits reveals the sons of the two antagonists talking on the steps of their school, speaking comfortably and relaxed in a non-threatening manner, which at least opens up the possibility that they acted together. Majid’s son, in a confrontation with Auteuil, declares he didn’t make or send the tapes, but no one asked if he knew who did.
The most likely culprit, at initial viewing, acting with the knowledge and complicity of Majid’s son, who may be ashamed and disgraced by what he perceives as his own father’s submissive emasculation, which may have unexpectedly led to his own surprising actions, is Auteuil’s own son, who may be equally pissed with his parents for a number of possible reasons, only his displeasure with his mother is even hinted at in the film, nothing else is revealed about either son. It’s all speculation suggesting the sins of the fathers are twistingly revisited into the sins of the sons, but certainly Auteuil’s son has the means and opportunity, and similar to Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, based on the color of his skin, no one suspects him. For that matter, what about Auteuil himself, in an attempt to expunge his guilt about his past? On the other hand, this may be, if you will, a mindfuck of a film, as Haneke may simply leave this an open question without resolution. Initially, not knowing who sent the tapes, I found this to be an optimistic ending, as the parental animosity seemed to be replaced by a kind of accepting friendship of the sons. Naahhh, this is a Haneke film, how can you trust optimism? Perhaps living with unanswered questions is the way it has to be, as contemporary society so often misjudges or misunderstands the information it already has at its disposal, and governments have grown so used to lying, concealing, even fabricating information, all have contributed to the disastrous consequences that reflect the world situation today.
5.) MYSTERIOUS SKIN A
USA (105 mi) 2004 d: Gregg Araki
While this film has a distinct look, beautifully filmed by Steve Gainer, it isn’t impressing anyone visually, instead it finds an interior voice that speaks volumes, that deals superbly with internalized pain and anguish and the awkward and strange ways we alter our harshest repressed memories. Complete with plenty of humor, I don’t know that anyone could ever see a more honest and uncompromising representation onscreen of this subject matter, as this is one extraordinary story about the aftereffects of sexual abuse, following the separate lives of two molested children. Adapted from the 1995 Scott Heim novel, there are simultaneously intertwined stories of two 8-year old kids, both on the same little league baseball team somewhere in small-town Kansas during the early 1980’s, one the nerdy worst player who sits on the end of the bench and rarely plays, and one who stands out above the rest, both attracted to and abused by their coach, who turns his bachelor pad into a children’s paradise, complete with games and snacks and everything that could lure a kid into his depraved world.
The choice of actors is impressive, Chase Ellison as the young kid whose confidence at that age is stunning, but most especially Joseph Gordon-Leavitt as that wild, aggressive kid grown up ten years later, who takes reckless chances, all the while holding everything inside, who develops a strange relationship with the perfectly cast Michelle Trachtenberg, his wacky teenage confidant who lights up the screen in each and every appearance, the only one who knows his personal secrets, who he describes when he meets her as someone he would fuck if he liked girls, but instead she becomes his most trusted cohort. Even Elisabeth Shue looks terrific as his overly flamboyant, boozy floozy mother. Brady Corbett plays the shy, nerdy kid with giant glasses, who thinks he was abducted by aliens at an early age, which is the only way he can explain his inexplicable inner feelings. Mary Lynn Rajskub becomes his only friend, perhaps the only other person in the universe more lonely than he is. His part of the story plays out in the most strange and peculiar fashion, yet by the end, it’s his sensitivity that makes this film work, so he remains at the heart and soul of this film. Along the way, they meet a mutual friend, Jeff Lihon, who dresses so freaky he’s outside everyone else’s radar, but who provides both of them with the friendship and sweet tenderness they are missing in their lives.
The film bears a strange resemblance to BOYS DON’T CRY, as it deals so openly with gay subject matter, including graphic sexual experiences, as the more confident kid turns into a gay male hustler, but he seems to use sex as a way of covering up, of maintaining control over his completely reckless and otherwise fragile interior world. The narration is always interesting, as it’s achingly real, and by the end, poetic in the most positive sense of the word, appealing to the better half of our nature, searching for the redemption that may never come to so many of these abused kids. From start to finish, this film was clearly on a mission to cut through the bullshit and take us on a brutally honest journey that is emotionally devastating, as close to the real thing as any of us could possibly imagine unless this has already happened to them. The strange music by Harold Budd and Robin Guthrie of the Cocteau Twins is captivating, so often expanding the realm of what we are experiencing. It’s an interesting title, as the words are never referenced in the film, yet it makes perfect sense, as in so many ways, body and soul, we can become complete strangers locked inside of our own skin.
6.) LOGGERHEADS A
USA (95 mi) 2005 d: Tim Kirkman
With little fanfare, this film, inspired by a true story, is an antidote to the phoniness and artificiality that passes for so many highly praised movies these days, and judging from the film critics and programmers that “missed” this one, it’s hard to say why it didn’t register with people “in the business” who should recognize what power lies in the hands of a filmmaker who simply has the ability of telling a story well. The title reflects the mating habits of loggerhead turtles, animals that have a sanctuary off the coast of North Carolina, who return to the exact spot on the beach where they were born and lay their eggs, that when hatched, must use the light of the moonlight to find the ocean. This theme is similar to the story of a young boy who was given up for adoption by his young teenage mother. Both the mother and son, Bonnie Hunt and Kip Pardue, later have a similar yearning to find one another in order to feel whole, but encounter obstacles on the way. Apparently this film has played in gay and lesbian film festivals, which again, has stereotyped its content, limited its release to the public, which I find unfortunate, as films that feature gay love, or lack of love, are really about anyone’s need for love. This film is relevant for anyone and everyone, as it’s largely hopeful, breaking free of stereotypes, and it speaks volumes about how we feel about one another.
This beautifully written story, where so much is only suggested and not shown, brought back memories of Christopher Munch’s 2002 film THE SLEEPY TIME GAL, where the flow of the film always moves toward the most intimate side of each character, who each seem to be running from themselves, somewhat in denial, who may only now be able to see in themselves just who they are, and are only now in this film moment able to make decisions that they could never make before. This is a film about being true to yourself, not subject to the definitions of others, about making your own decisions and living with the consequences, a film where words have meaning, where connections to others matter, with lifelong ramifications. The country musical score by Patti Griffin and Mark Geary adds a raw, melancholy insight into a world passing by, like ships in the night, where only a few moments in our lives ring with this kind of clarity, the rest of the time we spend struggling to achieve that kind of moment again.
This is a small, quiet film that never over-reaches, that stays within itself, yet clearly has a compelling world to explore, but doesn’t rely on overdramatic moments to call attention to itself, that excels in establishing an understated tone of sweet honesty that quietly draws the viewer into the story, that thankfully remains uncompromising throughout, parceling out information slowly, through three different sets of stories all taking place at different times in different regions of North Carolina. One right after another, like a chess opening, the director sets the pieces in motion, first in 1999, a minute later in 2000, and a minute later in 2001, using words that begin in one scene, but we may hear the end of that sentence in another scene, with the slightest bit more information added, enlarging the parameters of the characters, literally breathing life into what we know about them, creating a strikingly gentle and empathizing film with each of the three stories developing at the same pace so perfectly in balance with one another, like a revolving door. This is accomplished film writing by the director, giving his characters things to say that are inherently believable, using terrific ensemble acting performances (Tess Harper, Chris Sarandon, Ann Pierce, Michael Kelly, Michael Learned) that can simultaneously lure the viewer into the different emotional realm of several different characters who are each at a point in their lives where they are questioning themselves, using editing to create a mesmerizing rhythm and overlapping storyline that continues to flow one moment into the next, until we realize everything is not so perfectly in synch. We have gotten ahead of ourselves, pieces appear to be told out of time, making reference to earlier stages in people’s lives, where the consequences of decisions made a long time ago are unraveling before our eyes in the present. Then we move into another storyline where other characters are still dwelling in the past and haven’t made it to the present, so the time lines are always stretching out for one another, but they only meet at the very end of the film. In my view, this is simply terrific storytelling with people that have an aching need for one another, but don’t know how to express it, a continuously intermingling, extraordinarily tender love story, created by a series of wonderfully intimate moments that become vividly real for the viewer, where characters earn our respect, and perhaps even our hearts.
Old Testament Ruth 1:16-17
And Ruth said, Intreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God: Where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried.
7.) OFF THE MAP A
USA (111 mi) 2003 d: Campbell Scott
A bit in the realm of Percy Adlon’s surprisingly inventive BAGHDAD CAFE, this is a slow, understated, poetically detached, mysteriously odd adaptation of Joan Ackerman’s play, brilliantly acted, much of it wordless where the only spoken words are by an unseen narrator, as if reading from a diary far removed from the current time and place, set in a remote ranch in the middle of the desert in the early 70’s outside Taos, New Mexico. The film begins in the present, where a now professional-looking woman (Amy Brenneman) flips through photographs and drawings, establishing herself as the voice of the narrator, as we flashback some thirty years to when she was a curious, chatty, home-schooled 11-year old rambunctious child (Valentia de Angelis), occasionally hunting with her bow and arrow, or fishing with her parent’s one friend, living with her isolated and eccentric parents (Joan Allen and Sam Elliott) with no electricity, water, phone, and little money, living off the land as well as what they could find at the local dump, trading goods for what they need. Elliott is amazing though he barely speaks through the entire film, suffering from an immobilizing depression causing him to cry unexplainably, while Joan Allen is marvelous as a holistic force in the middle of nowhere, beautifully managing to always maintain her equilibrium, as well as those around her. Into this mix comes Jim True-Frost, an off-the-beaten-track IRS agent who loses his bearings the moment he sets his eyes on Joan Allen, naked in her vegetable garden, absolutely quiet, staring as if mesmerized by the powerful beauty of a prowling coyote. Immediately, he becomes part of the family, drawn to Allen and the extraordinary landscape, which he quietly paints in watercolors, intrigued by these humane creatures that have such a charming capacity to live in utter isolation, totally free from outsiders.
What’s interesting is that the film provides no backdrop information explaining what led these individuals to this place or why they are in the circumstances they are in. As the story moves forward, we are expected to fill in the holes and reach our own understanding with each of the characters, which is liable to be different for each viewer. The film has a very spare and tranquil tone throughout, without any orchestration, and instead relies on natural sounds, beautifully shot by Juan Ruiz Anchía, slowly drawing us into the desolate beauty of New Mexico, while the artwork used by Steven Berling is bright and affirming, perfectly capturing the mix of solitude and beauty. Local Deerfield hs grad Gary DeMichele wrote a quiet, minimalist score, accentuating the mood and sounds of the desert, while George C. Scott’s son tells the story in long takes, perfectly balancing the internal and external worlds, creating a challenging film that is constantly reinventing itself. While some, like onionclub, may find this film “peculiar and remote, strangled by its air of arty disengagement,” in point of fact, spending large amounts of time in the outer regions of the desert may make one feel that way, aptly expressed here through natural sounds and long wordless stretches which help simulate the raw power of living in such desolate isolation, which is not perceived here as threatening, but liberating.
8.) YES A
USA (99 mi) 2004 d: Sally Potter
Despite what I found to be flaws in the unending similarity of style alone, which by repetition, seems to lose some of the inventive originality, which may be a flaw in my own limitations of perception, and not really one found in the film at all, this is an odd, yet astonishingly insightful, poetic film, one of the most unabashedly sensual films I’ve ever seen that sticks in your imagination for days afterwards by using multiple techniques to persuade, hint at, touch and ultimately move the audience into embracing “love” on so many different levels. Apparently, Potter started writing this film the day after 09-11, and the result is her personal response as an artist, providing an off-setting, yet unforgettable feeling of reconciliation. While the language of the film is written entirely in rhyming iambic pentameter, spoken so softly at times that it’s nearly a whisper, producing an effect like it’s barely there, where one doesn’t catch each and every word or phrase, but only bits and pieces, as many other characters also speak in a thick London cockney-style accent where words are equally lost, instead, the film immerses us in a distinctive, startlingly inventive stylistic flow, not dependent on dialogue but oftentimes enhanced by it. The cinematography by Aleksei Rodionov creates a succession of unusual cuts and oblique camera angles, from images of a white room reminiscent of the finale of Kubrick’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, equally cold and sterile, lifeless, there’s an undercurrent of distrust and discontent, something not right, so Potter fills the room with the unlikely sounds of BB King singing the blues each time we pass through there, to a blur of brightly colorful, impressionistic stills that project a mosaic of feelings and tones that help us find our way later in the film. But mostly, there’s a brilliant musical score, some written by Philip Glass, the song "Paru River" from "Aguas de Amazonia," but some written by Potter herself, which I found astoundingly hypnotic and fragile, connecting to the moods of the characters in every respect, reminding us of what lies underneath the boundaries of human understanding.
Story wise, inside the white room lives a loveless and lifeless couple, Sam Neill, an English politician at his dreary, uptight worst, and in the performance of her career, the luminous and ubiquitous Joan Allen, from Belfast, Ireland, who grew up in America. Neither speak to one another, instead they leave notes behind for the other to find. The maid, Shirley Henderson, from WILBUR WANTS TO KILL HIMSELF, who speaks directly into the camera, is constantly cleaning up, uncovering dirt in an environment where not a speck of dirt can be seen, yet she lavishly dusts and washes as if the apartment was running over with grime. Like one of the characters out of Genet’s THE MAIDS, she is overtly aware that she is hired to preserve the appearance of cleanliness in someone else’s world, one that reeks of material splendor but spiritually is in moral collapse. Allen is a scientist whose job is peering through microscopes in search of perfect molecular connections. Through the void of her own marriage, she meets Simon Abkarian, a transported surgeon from Beirut who left of his own accord after saving a patient, who was later murdered before his eyes, as he was of the wrong political persuasion, who has been transformed instead into kitchen help and wait staff, who finds the right words and passion to sweep her off her feet. Their seduction is simply divine, capturing one another’s attention through eye contact, through facial expressions, in the way they touch and hold one another, and in the beautiful language they use to speak softly to one another, including a memorable scene in a near-empty restaurant where only the staff are wandering about, yet they are subtly consumed and overwhelmed in each other’s thoughts and touch, including his finger in her pants, yet this is never shown, only implied, something right out of LAST TANGO IN PARIS, creating one of the most daring and erotic scenes on film.
They have a blistering argument at one point, perhaps the focal point of the entire film, suggesting love alone cannot transcend differences, where they challenge each other’s misguided perceptions of themselves, coming from cultures that are diametric opposites, from lands where people kill one another in the name of God, and where he rightly observes she can’t even correctly pronounce his name. There are two side characters that play prominently, Stephanie Leonidas, Allen’s attractive young God-daughter who instinctively trusts her, but who is strangely manipulated in a calculated scene by an out-of-sorts, two-timing husband drunkenly attempting to undermine Allen’s stature in her eyes, while in another, Sheila Hancock, Allen’s aunt, lies in a coma in a Belfast hospital, yet words come sputtering out of her in a long, interior monologue like the stream-of-conscious language from James Joyce, where she reveals her bitterness in an odd kind of rapture, where her subconscious thoughts force Allen to promise her that she will visit Cuba some day. “I want my death to wake you up and clean you out,” acknowledging that her politically beloved communism has failed, yet heaping scorn on what took its place: “a load of greed, a life spent longing for things you don’t need!” And in a tribute to BUENA VISTA SOCIAL CLUB, Allen emerges from the picture of Cuba on the record jacket, and through impressionistic images, she merges with the sounds and colors of a completely alien culture, one where neither Allen nor Abkarian has an advantage over the other, where both are strangers, and where both can begin anew with the language of a single word. Sally Potter, apparently succumbing to the eternal grace and power of Molly Bloom’s unforgettable soliloquy in the final pages of Joyce’s Ulysses, which ends with the most affirming of all words, has said, “I think yes is the most beautiful and necessary word in the English language.”
From the Maid:
And, in the end, it simply isn’t worth / Your while to try and clean your life away. / You can’t. For, everything you do or say / Is there, forever. It leaves evidence. / In fact it’s really only common sense; / There’s no such thing as nothing, not at all. / It may be really very, very small / But it’s still there. In fact I think I’d guess / That “no” does not exist. There's only “yes.”
9.) HOWL’S MOVING CASTLE A
Japan (118 mi) 2004 d: Hayao Miyazaki
Perhaps Miyazaki’s most ambitious film, not necessarily his most accomplished however, loosely adapted from the novel by British fantasy writer Diana Wynne Jones, this is a truly bizarre film filled with multiple parts, which delights and soars in the multiplicity of tone that it offers, which is immense considering so many children are in the theater, as much of this is beyond their years, yet it captivates them nonetheless with its sheer inventiveness. There’s a lot going on here, more than in most Miyazaki films, making this a much more complicated film experience, darker and more densely layered, constantly evolving, where nothing remains the same, neither the inner nor the outer worlds, making it more challenging and utterly absorbing. With the spin of a wheel that’s part of a magical castle’s door, we can enter different settings for what’s occurring outside, each going on simultaneously, one where a war rages, where people in town are clamoring to grab whatever belongings they can carry and escape while they can, another where that same town is set perhaps fifty years earlier alongside a beautifully blue-colored lake, where the town is bustling with activity, another is set high above the town below, amidst the fog in a natural landscape of cliffs and lakes and other scenic wonders, while still another is a magical garden in the middle of a pastoral paradise in a setting that blends both the past and the future. Seemingly, with the touch of a button, we could be anywhere, which makes this a most modern experience.
Sophie is a young teenage hatmaker, who voluntarily withdraws into her world of solitude, and while walking through town one day, where warplanes are buzzing overhead and the town is marching patriotically to a giant parade, aggressive soldiers stand in her path, followed by slithering globs of goo that transform themselves into uniform-wearing sentries of a shadow dimension, but she is rescued by a soft-spoken spirit that literally lifts her up into the air where the two of them walk in the sky before she is returned, ever so gracefully, back to earth. She is visited by another spirit, the fashionably obese Witch of the Waste, who gleefully places a curse on her and transforms her into a 90-year old woman. Ashamed of herself, she hitches a ride on a hay wagon out of town, then continues on foot into a countryside where witches and demons roam. As a storm brews, she searches for shelter and is aided by a Scarecrow that jumps on its pole like a pogo-stick, leading her to the door of Howl’s Castle, a gigantic machine-like monstrosity walking on chicken legs that looks like a pile of junk that has been thrown together, yet inside, protected by that magical door, are the keys to new universes. This begins her adventure in an enchanted dilapidated castle run by the mysterious Howl, who flies through the air as a bird-like serpent, apparently serving two war-like kingdoms who send flying war demons with pig snouts against him, as well as other enormous warship contraptions in the sky, dropping bombs, wreaking havoc everywhere, returning exhausted after each ordeal, to human shape, as well as his constantly griping fire demon Calcifer, who provides an aura of protection to the castle and its inhabitants, and is also able to move it along on its iron legs, keeping it hidden from the evil forces, those globs of goo that are constantly hunting it down. In this world, Sophie takes on the maternal role of cleaning things up, taking care of the many moods of the spirits, nursing Howl back to health, poking fun at Calcifer, and generally being a force of good.
In a strange turn of fate, Howl is called upon to appear before the king, apparently in the guise of both spirits that he inhabits, but seems inclined to avoid confrontation, and gets very moody from time to time, as if his life of shape-shifting leaves him in a perpetual state of exhaustion, so Sophie volunteers to go in his place, pretending to be his mother, offering a thought or two about that senseless war that is raging. Certainly, when war rages, from a child’s standpoint, it must seem senseless. In what is easily the most hilarious sequence in the film, the spirits are not allowed helpers to climb the multitude of stairs leading into the kingdom, so these two aging woman, Sophie, who is carrying a mysterious dog that she believes is the spirit of Howl, and the enormously fat Witch of the Waste, who is huffing and puffing and perspiring in utter agony, climb an endless stretch of steps into the royal kingdom, meeting not the king, but his sorceress, Madame Suliman. There are characters changing shapes fast and furious, their real identities remain a mystery, the relationship of one spirit to another remains elusive, no one knows whether spirits are working for the force of good or evil, all are somehow mixed together in this magical kingdom that is running some kind of war that serves no one’s interest. Sophie, even, constantly changes her own shape from the natural teen-age girl she is, fighting for the forces she believes in, to the cursed old woman she has been cursed to become, sometimes shifting back and forth in mid-sentence. Through it all, she remains kind, purposeful, and utterly committed to following her human heart, which leads her into seemingly disparate magical universes, connected by the thread that is her own thoroughly unnoticed transformation into a surprisingly level-headed and compassionate adult.
10.) DAYS OF BEING WILD A-
(made in 1991, released in Chicago in 2005)
Hong Kong (94 mi) 1991 d: Wong Kar-wai
I always thought each minute flies by, but sometimes it really lingers.
A wonderfully raw and sensual look at this director’s second film, collaborating for the first time with cinematographer Christopher Boyle, conceived as the first of two installments, but due to box office failures, no second film was ever made, leaving a spare, almost Tsai Ming-liang tone. The story is about the first generation after WWII, set in Hong Kong in 1960 where characters are consumed by fate and chance, the longing for love, and by torrents of neverending rain. We see how short-lived friendships have longer lasting impacts, which seems to counter the prevailing mood of indifference and ennui. This dreamy, completely absorbing film features exquisite performances by, at the time, little named actors who are all now big stars. The mood throughout is positively captivating, filled with a reckless sexual abandon of early youth, which is ablaze in energy and hope that is all but extinguished by the dark emptiness of the night. There is some eye-opening camera work as well as jolting big band Latin musical interludes featuring the music of Xavier Cugat and the songs “My Shawl;” “Perfidia;” “Siboney;” “Jungle Dreams” (which played during the fight sequence), also some dreamy Hawaiian music that opens the film, “Always in My Heart” by Los Indios Tabajaras, and later “Maria Elena” (which played during Carina Lau’s dance for Jackie Cheung – see also: http://www.wongkarwai.net/pages.php?page=Soundtrack+FAQ).
In an idealized vision of dreamy sensuousness mixed with controlled restraint, Leslie Cheung is simply brilliant as Yuddy, the handsome and irresistible young ladykiller with a violent streak, who beats the crap out of a guy with a sledgehammer but then immediately combs his hair afterwards, who preens and dances alone in his underwear in front of a mirror, and who loves and leaves two extraordinary women vying for his attention, the late night insomniac Maggie Cheung as Su Lizhen and jealous dance hostess Carina Lau, known as Lulu or Mimi, both of whom are left crying from heartbreak. Also woven into the fabric is street cop Andy Lau who dreams of being a sailor, and a very peculiar but masterful final sequence featuring a young gambler Tony Leung, which ends the film exactly as it began, using the same mannerisms as his predecessor, combing his hair in front of a mirror, and one by one placing into his pocket poker cards, change, a wad of money, a comb, a handkerchief, cigarettes, and a lighter before he goes out, where he seems primed to take the place of Leslie Cheung. According to the director, “It is the most intriguing ending of all my films.”
A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE A-
USA (96 mi) 2005 d: David Cronenberg
From the opening sequence, which typically exemplifies the director’s command of the medium, a masterful long shot that is all mood with a precise malevolent tone, including outrageous shades of dark humor, Cronenberg does with this film what Eastwood failed to do in MYSTIC RIVER, which is to establish, at the core of this film, believability. A film that successfully straddles the line between a thriller and an art film, it’s intriguing how Cronenberg wordlessly connects between characters, and with the audience, the complex layers that make it difficult to distinguish between right and wrong, good and evil, as many of the evil characters never cross the line of out and out criminal behavior, while many of the righteous and good characters did cross that line, yet for understandable motives. There is a brilliant and elegant pace and style throughout, economical and spare, without a single wasted frame, using music that sounds like Aaron Copland in “Our Town,” pure understated small town Americana, prideful, even heroic, yet mourning a faraway loss or regret, a reminder that death is a fundamental fabric of small town life.
With bad guys on the loose, almost in the abstract, the film changes gears and zeroes in on a typical loving family somewhere in small-town Indiana, where Tom, Viggo Mortensen, an aw-shucks everyday kind of guy who runs a Main Street diner, with Maria Bello as his loving and supportive wife, with two kids, a befuddled teenage boy who is the victim of high school bullies and what looks like a cute but over-pampered blond, curly-haired, 6-year old daughter. The rhythm of life is established and broken when the bad guys enter the diner and get their lunch handed to them by soft-spoken, mild mannered Tom, a stand in for Clark Kent, who is instantly turned into a reluctant hero. Despite his undesired popularity, more bad guys arrive in the form of Ed Harris, who is missing one eye, and attributes its loss to Tom, who he recognizes as Joey from the old neighborhood in Philly. Harris stalks him, very much like the high school bully that continues to pick on the son, until all hell break loose in each case, where the situation is resolved through unintended violence, but it gets the job done. Or does it? As there’s more bad guys where they came from. Violence only leads to more violence, which sometimes seems like the only way, as without it, innocent individuals would continue be victimized and harmed, so at the very least, we understand and are willing to accept its place in our society, all precipitated here by seething male anger. Interesting that Cronenberg establishes some healthy marital sex, even after twenty years of marriage, which adds credibility to the vulnerability of the characters. We see them when no one is looking, and they maintain their interest and intellect. The complexity of Monica Bello’s performance is stunning, as she remains fierce and independent, yet she’s nearly raped by her husband, who turns into a monster to defend his family. Again, it is rape, but it turns into something else, which may as well be a metaphor for the film – unintended consequences. As Tom has to come to terms with Joey, and all the ramifications of his so-called controlled violence, so too does his family and his town, as they’re all interconnected. Cronenberg’s wordless interplay is astonishing, particularly at the end, which remains so ambiguous. Yet how many lies can we absorb and still remain true to ourselves?
GRIZZLY MAN A-
Germany (103 mi) 2004 d: Werner Herzog
“Bring back my fucking hat, Mr. Fox”
I found this to be not just bizarre, but a bewildering film experience. Quite a contrast to the “feel good” documentary of the year, watching those lovely little tuxedo clad penguins survive the brutally harsh conditions of Antarctica in THE MARCH OF THE PENGUINS, where survival is a miracle, here Herzog opens his film by reporting facts of a mauling death in the wilderness, describing how a man, who had spent a dozen summers in Alaska's Katmai National Park and Reserve camping in close proximity to enormous grizzly bears without any weapons, was in the end actually killed and then eaten by one. More tragically, it took his girl friend with him. Herzog then recounts the life and circumstances that led to that moment, including interviews with some of the people who knew him. One thing becomes clear straightaway, Timothy Treadwell, the so-called Grizzly Man, was not the hardened macho image of an outdoors-type mountain man, instead he was a geeky guy who behaved like he was doing spots for the Pee Wee Herman show for little kids, always placing himself on camera with the bears, narrating different adventure scenarios where he calls the animals Mr. Bear or Mr. Fox, “You’re the boss,” even providing safe-sounding names for the bears, like Wendy or Mr. Chocolate, as if he was our guide, navigating us through his own imagined inhospitable and unchartered territory. While Herzog has always had a fascination for the obsessed, to the point of madness, Treadwell, on the other hand, was a social outcast who couldn’t get along with people, who probably should have been on medication for his obvious bi-polar mood swings which are on full display, who continued to harbor paranoid delusions about the world around him, believing he was the safe keeper for all the animals in the woods, that the rest of the world was out to destroy them and bring them harm, that only his love and perseverance each year could save them and allow them to live in the Eden-like peace and harmony of his mind. Treadwell’s delusions lead him to over-humanize his feelings for wild animals, especially his favorites, the fox and the bear. He is seen patting a bear, petting a fox, and even sleeping with a teddy bear at night in his tent, where the cameras continue to roll while he expounds on his own virtues as saint and savior of the wild, later unleashing a profanity-laden explosive tirade on a nimble fox that playfully takes his hat or the Forest service that he claims is out to screw him. All of this paints a very uncomfortable portrait of an unstable and unbalanced individual, a victim of his own untreated mental health problems, who thinks the world of nature is somehow idyllic and sweet, and never understands why animals, like humans, get ugly.
A truer picture of the wild is painted by the curator of a Native American museum who speaks of a centuries-old boundary that exists between humans and the wild, suggesting the ultimate disrespect is not to recognize those boundaries. Treadwell, however, was very popular traveling to elementary grade students with whom he freely shared his film footage, which, as Herzog points out, was breathtaking due to its close proximity to such dangerous animals, then getting in a dig, calling it something “no union photographer would do.” However, in true Herzog fashion, by unraveling the mystery of some 100 hours of Treadwell’s film, he discovers a time line of his final hours where he may have inadvertently filmed the bear that killed him, an older bear seen diving in the river for fish at the bottom, one sure sign of hunger, and then Herzog takes us back to the scene of the crime and coldly narrates the final minutes of a man’s life through his own film footage. The actual attack was filmed as well, but Treadwell never had a chance to remove the lens cap, leaving instead a gruesome 6-minute audio-only tape, which Herzog listened to, but chose not to include in his film, suggesting instead that it should immediately be destroyed, leaving Herzog as one of the few humans to ever hear it. The coroner provides a bone-chilling account of how the bear first attacked Treadwell, who screamed for his girl friend to run away, but she stayed with him to the end, trying to fight off the bear with screams and a frying pan. Ironically, it was Treadwell’s flare-up with an Alaskan Air official that he called “obese” that sent him scurrying back into the wild, long after most of the bears he knew were already in hibernation, leaving only the hardened and hungry bears still searching for food, including the one that he films staring blankly at him moments before he was attacked. Herzog concludes that in the end, his film is just as much about the mystery of the human species as it is about exploring the neverending mysteries of the wild, and provides a brilliant ending, a stunningly beautiful shot of Treadwell making his way along a riverbank followed by several bears, where the luminescent brilliance of the color is jumping off the screen, accompanied by a hauntingly melancholic song that offers a brief whoop to so much that has been lost all around us, “Coyotes,” sung by both Don Edwards and the airline pilot that flew Treadwell into the wild, that continues playing over the credits.
HUSTLE AND FLOW A-
USA (114 mi) 2005 d: Craig Brewer
It’s hard out there for a pimp
when you’ve got to make money for the rent
A film that breathes life into the word life, that thrives on authentic atmosphere and terrific performances, as the story itself seems less than inspiring, offering instead a beautifully textured realism, shot on location in and around the rough neighborhoods of Memphis by a white writer/director who grew up there, and whose wife, as it turns out, was an exotic dancer at a strip club, and whose real-life father died young from a heart attack, using part of his inheritance to start making films. Terrence Howard plays an otherwise forgettable small-time hood, DJay, a pimp with a beat up cadillac, one teenage white girl with braids in his stable who he sells out of his car in the sweltering heat (Taryn Manning), another works as a lap dancer in a strip joint at night (Paula J. Parker), while a third stays home as she’s 8-months pregnant (Taraji P. Henson). Along the way, he also sells bags of reefer to Isaac Hayes, the caretaker of a local bar. There is nothing here to pull us into this world except the cinematic vision of the director, realized by cinematographer Amelia Vincent, and the exceptional performances of everyone involved. Howard, who is onscreen in nearly every frame, brilliantly portrays a man on the edge of a precipice, desperately trying to hold his world together while it’s splitting apart at the seams, a small-timer who wants to be more, but who’s stuck in his dead-end world. The film is layered with the rhythms of his life, the places he visits on his daily routines, the people he encounters, and reveals just what kind of man he is – smart, ambitious, firm, yet frustrated, easy to anger, yet soft-spoken, likeable, even tender, the kind of guy who’s probably never left the poor side of Memphis, who at heart, is a low down hustler, a bottom-feeder looking for a way out, a tinderbox ready to explode, a man whose father’s heart gave out at about his age. Already approaching forty, he senses his mortality drawing ever nearer.
In a key scene, he meets an old high school friend (Anthony Anderson), a part-time music producer who brings him (and his girl – they are inseparable) to a recording of a gospel singer at a local church, a genuinely moving performance that adds the element of faith and inspiration to this story. Using an old scrap Casio keyboard, he starts jotting down rap lyrics in a small pocket notebook, and asks for Anderson’s help in getting recorded. What transpires in a makeshift recording studio in DJay’s home “is” the film. It’s simply wonderful, as little by little, they get to know one another, including a white techno-track percussionist (a stand-in for the director?), where initially the issue of race stares in our face but is set aside for a common goal. They start to trust each other. Layer by layer, they slowly create a series of sound tracks, even asking for the exquisite help of Taraji P. Henson, who is simply sublime adding her delicate and sumptuous voice, initially terrified, but gains confidence until she exudes soulfulness. Somehow they turn his rap lyric into an anthem for street frustration with classics like “Whoop That Trick” or “It’s Hard for a Pimp.” This studio sequence brings all the players working together to create a positively exhilarating musical love fest, before the harsh world of reality sets in again, and life goes on, much like it did before. DJay pins his hopes on a coming home party of a local platinum selling rap star, thinking if he can get his music in the right hands, he’ll be able to write his own ticket out of there. Their pivotal scene is tense, filled with unanticipated detours, creating an atmosphere thick with suspense. Despite the overly simplistic elements, the director deserves credit for bringing to the screen authentic people who are so easily stereotyped, actually transcending the genre, as he does a terrific job creating a specific time and place, inhabited by people we normally scorn or don’t want to see, exposing us to an entirely different universe that feels all too human.
Sweden (120 mi) 2003 d: Ingmar Bergman
Bergman’s last opus, written for Swedish television, an aftermath to his previous opus from 1973, his mammoth 6-hour made for TV epic, SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE, revealing the repercussions of their decisions made thirty-years earlier. While the characters are few, and a loveless group they are, they are filled with enough guilt and regret to fill a lifetime, where only the voice of the dead, reflected in a letter discovered years after someone died, reveals the true intentions of love. Interestingly, the film is shot in digital video, which gives it an intimate, yet surprisingly ugly veneer. The acting is flawless, the writing, of course, excessively personal, yet through the sheer power of brutal honesty, it all comes together through the slow build-up of time, complete with a few twists and turns, revealed in ten chapter headings and with Bergman’s inscrutable taste in music, including the allegro movement from Bach’s First Organ Trio and the Saraband from the 5th Unaccompanied Cello Suite.
Utilizing the familiarity of Bergman icons Erland Josephson and Liv Ullman, the story re-unites a couple that was married for 16-years, then separated and hasn’t spoken in the last thirty years. Suddenly, as if moved by the unseen voice of God, the 65-year old Ullman decides to pay 81-year old Josephson, a stubborn, self-professed hermit living at his summer home, a visit. One thinks perhaps he is near-death, but that isn’t the case. Their immediate intimacy is obvious, but so are the walls that separated them years ago that haven’t come down, which have instead, remained in place, as if they are the pillars of each other’s personality. Enter into the picture their respective children with whom they have little or no contact, for Ullman, one has fled to Australia where she is presumably successful and happy while the other is institutionalized. But the story doesn’t focus on them, it’s about the nearly ignored 61-year old son, Börje Ahlstedt, that Josephson had with another woman, the mother revered throughout the film but now deceased for two years, and the 19-year old grand-daughter, Julia Dufvenius. The father and daughter have an incestuous relationship, sleeping in the same bed, kissing passionately on the lips, emotionally, completely dependent on one another since the death of the mother, one can draw their own conclusions. The daughter has talent as a cello player, is about to enroll in a music conservatory, and is being personally taught by her father for her upcoming audition. In the course of the film, in scenes of couplets, always two at a time, except for the opening and closing monologue by Ullman, all reveal their relationships to one another, and it’s the viewer’s choice whether any of them succeed. The grand-daughter respects them all, and is loved by them all, but she can’t seem to get out from under the tutelage of her father. The son has utter contempt for his father, who has complete indifference for his son, while unknown forces draw Ullman and Josephson together, perhaps familiarity. At the swan song of his life, Josephson faces his own death, expressed through the crashing repetitious chords from Bruckner’s 9th Symphony and an early morning bout with anxiety that leaves him utterly horrified, Ullman graciously tries to find the love within her that has never been there, the father needs what he needs, but his poverty and misery are driving him mad, and the grand-daughter doesn’t wish to make anyone unhappy and must find her own way. In the end, bookended by Ullman’s soliloquy with the camera, reviewing and organizing photographs like so many memories, tidying up her loose ends, life is abrupt, and those rare moments of lucidity may be all too rare. Reflections on those moments last a lifetime.
THE CONSEQUENCES OF LOVE A-
Italy (100 mi) 2004 d: Paolo Sorrentino
An existential gangster flick, with Michael Mann-style production values, featuring a lead actor, Toni Servillo, who could be a stand in for French film director Jean-Luc Godard, both in controlled appearance and relaxed mannerisms, ignoring everyone, always lighting up another cigarette, holed up in a quiet, discreet luxury hotel in Switzerland, staring out the windows, seemingly with contempt as his only friend. The film has spectacular visualizations from Luca Bigazzi as well as perfectly chosen music by Pasquale Catalano, sometimes calm and contemplative, other times electric and pulsating, as if to get the blood racing, always adding a needed dimension to round out and sensualize what we see onscreen. In much of the film nothing happens. Yet despite the dour and low-key tone, the film amazingly flourishes with humor throughout. We get Servillo’s voiceover making utterances like “Truth is boring,” disinterested in nearly every aspect of his or anybody else’s life, yet he maintains an extremely lavish lifestyle, where the rhythm of his life is following the exact same routine, coldly calculated, precise, with the look of perfection. Anyone who’s seen Kubrick’s THE KILLING knows that perfection in a gangster’s life is a facade, usually short-lived, and sometimes fatal. It’s only a matter of time before events start to unravel.
The film brilliantly establishes Servillo’s apparent invulnerability, as his cushy, ultra-suave lifestyle is supported by a suitcase that arrives regularly filled with large sums of cash, which he routinely takes to the bank to have hand counted. In this manner he seems completely protected and untouchable. So long as the wheels keep churning out the cash, he really has no need for anyone else’s company. But of course, circumstances change. Through a chance conversation from an attractive female bartender in the hotel, Olivia Magnani (Anna’s grand-daughter), someone who’s been serving him drinks for nearly two years and never received a single response, he responds in a manner that he knows may prove to be the most dangerous decision in his life. He talks to her and vaguely takes an interest. What happens after that is a series of unanticipated events, some of it playing out only in his mind, while other events are all too real and hit him like a steamroller. Eventually he has to confront the people who are the source of his money, which is an amazing camera shot, sending us directly into the bowels of the Costa Nostra. The film is a dazzling piece of work that stylistically evolves through unpredictable rhythms with such an elegant grace all the way through to the subtle simplicity of the finale. It would be foolish to reveal too much about this film, as it only reveals a bare minimum itself. That is the essence of its beauty.
THE SQUID AND THE WHALE A-
USA (88 mi) 2005 d: Noah Baumbach
Joint custody blows.
Hilarious and devastating all at the same time, an emotionally anguishing film, showing us a well educated upper middle class Brooklyn family in deterioration, as the liberal-minded, openly progressive parents one day announce to their two close-knit sons that they are separating. What follows is a walking nightmare for all participants, but especially devastating to the two boys, who are divided up like leftover helpings for dinner, mom’s night or dad’s night, with rules that they must strictly adhere to that make little or no sense. Jeff Daniels plays one of the most despicable characters seen onscreen short of a cold-blooded killer, a smug, overbearing know-it-all father who uses knowledge as an absolute, who was a successful writer at one time but now toils in obscurity as a literary professor. He’s a terrible judge of character, however, especially within his own family, as no one else’s opinion counts except his own, and he’s constantly defining the world around him with set-in-stone judgments and conclusions, including his own wife and children, confining them to a world that exists only in the arrogance of his own mind. As a result, the older son is a carbon copy, an opinionated copycat that blames his mom for their separation, simply because his dad does, and refuses to have anything to do with her. Laura Linney is also a writer, but is constantly denigrated as second rate by dad, so when she breaks from the nest, it’s her writing that gets recognized, and with her newborn freedom, she literally blooms, like the lilies of the field, much to her husband and older son’s outright hatred and jealousy. The younger son is more in tune with the softer nature of his mom, but as we watch his world unravel, it veers into painfully unfamiliar territory. As time passes, everyone’s shortcomings become more evident, allowing emotional positions to shift. What is amazing here is how much the children resemble their parents. At times it’s downright creepy.
Billy Baldwin and Anna Paquin are both excellent in side roles, and the acting overall is superb. This is one of the better edited films I’ve seen, as there is no wasted motion whatsoever, every scene flows so perfectly into the next, which is significant as the exquisite pacing increases the dramatic power by keeping everything so compact and concise. What is said, and how it is said, is simultaneously humorous and brutal, like a variation on WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF, where words so skillfully utilized become weapons. The film never dwells or lingers, and always adds the grace notes of wit and humor, but the cumulative effect reveals a slow deterioration of the kid’s personalities, with moments that feel like a descent into madness. The accompanying music is extremely well chosen, much of it humorous references from other films, and always in synch with the material. My problem with the film is with the written depiction of the parents, which is actually one of the great strengths of the film, whose separate lives seem so meticulously organized, right down to who gets the cat on what night, so their neglectful behavior, particularly with the younger son, just seems so improbable. It does not seem very likely that such well educated parents, clueless and self-centered as they are, whose interest in their children borders on the obsessive, would not wait (a half-hour?) to make sure someone picked up their child before they left on a lengthy trip. The hideousness of this act did not ring true with these parents, at least for me, while the aftereffects of their marital breakup is true enough, unsparing and brutal, sad and psychologically horrific.
DARWIN’S NIGHTMARE A-
Austria Belgium France (107 mi) 2004 d: Herbert Sauper
Is this what Franz Fanon envisioned when he wrote The Wretched of the Earth? If ever there was a film that exposed the woes of capitalism, how it perpetrates an unequal distribution of wealth, how the goods and services are produced by a lower class unable to enjoy the fruits of their own labor, which is instead enjoyed by a middle to upper class, the only groups able to afford the price – this is it. In nightmarish fashion, some of it truly terrifying, perhaps excessively so, as nothing is more terrifying than reality, the filmmaker exposes the day to day realities of living in Tanzania today, home of the birthplace of original man along the banks of Lake Victoria, now, sadly, victims of extremely high death rates from AIDS, where the religious figures refuse to counsel or recommend the use of condoms, believing using a condom is a sin, where widows are forced into prostitution, where the extreme poverty leads to young kids who melt plastic fish containers, sniffing a product that resembles glue, where they are then sexually victimized, unable to awaken from their drug-induced stupor. The film does not use the typical talking points method, where various experts bore us to death with details, instead it focuses on the people in the region and lets them tell their story, visually painting a journalistic portrait of graphic, unforgettable images that few of us could even imagine, much less see captured on film.
The corporations are seen patting themselves on the back, claiming they’ve provided 1000 jobs to the region, cleaned up the factories so they’re up to the European Union standards, capturing 500 tons of fish every day, completely oblivious to the starvation and disease that dominates the region, where some 2 million Tanzanians face starvation so that another 2 million Europeans can eat Tanzanian perch every day. Someone, on one day a few decades ago, placed a Nile perch in Lake Victoria, a fish that was not indigenous to the lake, that through the passage of time, has eaten all the other groups of fish in the lake, including fish that eat algae and have historically kept the lake clean, leading to a giant perch the size of a baby whale which is exported exclusively to Europe, Russia, and Japan, a fish that is not affordable to the local fisherman or any of the villagers, who instead are left the fish carcasses to live on, where we see truckloads of garbage being unloaded, basically rotting fish, so you can imagine what it smells like, with worms, maggots and other vermin crawling all over it, which young women collect and place on racks to dry, which is then sold in the local markets of Mwanza. There is an extraordinary scene on a beach filled with hungry children, where a pot of rice is placed on the ground, and they all grab at once with their bare hands, pushing and shoving others out of the way, even taking the food from others through brute force, leaving some with handfuls and others with nothing, a staggering image of survival of the fittest.
The film is balanced between images of the locals and images of the profiteers, who sit around with healthy fish strung on a line and cook their fish while drinking Scotch, ridiculing the behavior of the blacks in the region, calling them lazy and unwilling to work, while they surround themselves with nearly exclusively white Europeanized business partners. The Australian or Russian pilots arrive in Tanzania with their planes empty, and leave completely filled with already packaged perch fillets. The pilots have their pick of the local prostitutes. In one horrid scene, the women are commiserating with each other after one of the pilots has stabbed and killed one of their friends, after promising her a better life with educational opportunities. One of the Russian pilots eventually confesses on camera to flying in tanks and arms, which he delivers to Angola, then flies to Tanzania and loads his plane with fish to return to Russia. He dreams of a world where all the children are happy, but that isn’t this world we’re living in, as evidenced by the perfection of the final shot. This is a raw and devastating look at the human condition, an amazing journalistic exposé, with unforgettable images as harrowing and appalling as anything you're ever likely to see, captured with detachment and objectivity, with the filmmaker occasionally asking questions quietly, but obviously getting footage that no one would believe if they didn’t see it for themselves. According to the director, his recollection of this film is sitting “in the merciless equatorial sun surrounded by a million Nile perch skeletons, trying not to go mad.”
USA (115 mi) 2005 d: Bennett Miller
It comforts me, something so horrifying. It’s a relief.
A slowly developing, ethereal work, a wonderfully concise adaptation by Dan Futterman from a Gerald Clarke biography, actually using only 50 pages from the 500 page book, establishing an understated, low-key tone with plenty of quiet moments and eerie silences, with a beautifully spare soundtrack by Mychael Danna that resembles the haunting music of Arvo Pärt, a film that is especially adept in depicting the huge expanse of the farm country of Kansas, portrayed with a much slower pace of life. This first-time feature director has created an intelligent, well-edited, atmospheric look at Truman Capote, brilliantly underplayed by Philip Seymour Hoffman, from his first interest in the senseless Clutter murders at a Kansas farm that he reads about in The New York Times that eventually becomes the material for his book In Cold Blood. When he visits Holcomb, Kansas, the initial contrast between Capote’s outrageously gay speech and mannerisms and the calm, steady Midwestern restraint of the Kansas special agent played by Chris Cooper is clearly evident, and it seems nearly incomprehensible that he has brought with him as his assistant a childhood friend and fellow writer, Harper Lee, (Catherine Keener) prior to the publication of her book To Kill a Mockingbird, effectively combining two of the brightest, most articulate Southern writers, both with highly-trained powers of observation, with unusually keen eyes for personal detail. Lee’s more generous and less flamboyant nature gets Capote through many doors that would otherwise have remained closed to him throughout the police investigation, capture, and subsequent trials.
There’s a wonderful rhythm and pace to the film, a slowly developing Faustian bargain with the devil, as Capote truly bargains his soul with this story that completely envelops him, which draws the viewers into the murky, brilliant, but utterly narcissistic world of Truman Capote, seen with a transparent grace throughout the film, a self-styled egotist who continuously plies himself with alcohol, who freely pays off the Kansas State Penitentiary warden in order to gain free access with the prisoner, who dismisses Harper Lee’s success at a party celebrating the movie release of her book, and who fails miserably in any human attempt to befriend the prisoners, providing legal assistance when he needs them to stay alive, then withdrawing that counsel when he has extracted everything that he needs, actually preferring that they die, as he feels the system is tormenting him by prolonging their stays of execution, thus preventing him from finishing his book, which eventually takes five and a half years. But he is also seen as a brilliant conversationalist and storyteller who is able to offer intimate, personal insight into the mind of Perry Smith, one of the killers, whose childhood abandonment resembled that of his own, feeling as if they both grew up in the same household, where “ I went through the front door while he went out the back.” His mood swings from close personal confidant to utter detachment, bordering on contempt for all mankind, is on full display. It’s a brilliant account of a twisted and vulnerable man who always saw himself as more than he was, perhaps to overcompensate for the emotional devastation and personal horrors of his own childhood, always being an outsider, having to be smarter and better than everybody else, continually placing himself on center stage, leaving him no wiggle room for just being himself. The performances are all first rate, and there’s a wonderfully elegant style and manner through which this story unfolds, captivating until the very end, when the end screen titles err a bit by elevating Capote to the most famous writer in America and by suggesting he never finished another book, somewhat overstating the case as both are debatable claims. Also of interest, by some strange act of fate, Harper Lee never wrote another book either.
Leslie Cheung – Days of Being Wild
Bruno Ganz - Downfall
Joseph Gordon-Leavitt – Mysterious Skin (1) + Brick (2)
Terrence Howard – Hustle and Flow
Viggo Mortensen – A History of Violence
*Philip Seymour Hoffman – Capote
David Straithairn – Good Night, and Good Luck
Heath Ledger – Brokeback Mountain
*Joan Allen – Yes (1) + Off the Map (2) + The Upside of Anger (3)
Emmanuelle Devos – Kings and Queen
Sylvie Testud – Fear and Trembling
Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi – 5 X 2
Liv Ullman – Saraband
Krystyna Feldmann – My Nikifor
Reese Witherspoon – Walk the Line
BEST SUPP ACTOR
Jim True-Frost – Off the Map
Anthony Anderson – Hustle and Flow
*Eamonn Walker – Duma
Lars Rudolph – Pale Eyes
Ed Harris – A History of Violence
Simon Abkarian – Gamblers (1) + Yes (2)
BEST SUPP ACTRESS
Maggie Cheung – Days of Being Wild
Carina Lau – Days of Being Wild
Taraji P. Henson – Hustle and Flow
Abigail Breslin – Keane
*Monica Bello – A History of Violence
Frances McDormand – North Country
Wong Kar-wai Hong Kong Days of Being Wild
Gregg Araki USA Mysterious Skin
*David Cronenberg USA A History of Violence
Ang Lee USA Brokeback Mountain
Jia Zhang-ke China The World
Michael Haneke Austria Caché (Hidden)
Gregg Araki, adapted from Scott Heim – Mysterious Skin
*Noah Baumbach – The Squid and the Whale
Michael Haneke - Caché (Hidden)
Dan Futterman, adapted from Gerald Clarke – Capote
Tim Kirkman - Loggerheads
Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana, adapted from E. Annie Proulx – Brokeback Mountain
Christopher Doyle – Days of Being Wild + 2046
*Yu Lik-wai – The World
Luca Bigazzi – The Consequences of Love
Roman Osin – Pride and Prejudice
Yorgos Arvanitis – A Song of Innocence
Jorge Prieto – Brokeback Mountain
BEST ENSEMBLE ACTING
*Days of Being Wild
Off the Map
The Squid and the Whale
BEST ART DIRECTION
Howl’s Moving Castle
*Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
The Beat That My Heart Skipped
A History of Violence
The Squid and the Whale
A Peck on the Cheek
The New World
BEST ORIGINAL MUSIC
*Harold Budd and Robin Guthrie of the Cocteau Twins – Mysterious Skin
Joe Hisaishi – Howl’s Moving Castle
The Polyphonic Spree and Elliot Smith – Thumbsucker
Lim Giong – The World
Mychael Danna – Capote
Bartlomiej Gliniak – My Nikifor
Pasquale Catalano – The Consequences of Love
Belle and Sebastian – In Memory of My Father