Thursday, July 08, 2004

Top Films of 2003

After having my psyche pulverized by all the hoopla surrounding the war in Iraq, I tended to hunger for more silence and space in films this year. In the face of being pummeled with misinformation, whether it was Colin Powell lying to the U.N. on the undeniable evidence of weapons of mass-destruction in Iraq, GW Bush lying about how we were liberating the citizens of Iraq, or the myriad of lies that kept most of us from clarifying the connections between Enron, Arnold Schwartzenegger, the natural gas crisis in California, and the recall of former Governor Grey Davis, I found myself looking for movies that beckoned us to peer beneath the surface of things.

My expectations of film have also been transformed over the past two years by repeated viewings of the works of Andrei Tarkovsky and Yasujiro Ozu. These two filmmakers are well known for taking their time and focusing in on the subtleties often overlooked by many of their contemporaries. I wrote about some great films by Tarkovsky last year in my Re:Discoveries section (Stalker being my absolute favorite), and this year that section will present a few of the many gems shown at the recent Ozu Retrospective (honoring the 100th anniversary of the director’s birth) at the Castro Theater and the Pacific Film Archive in November and December 2003.

1) Russian Ark (Alexander Sokurov – Russia)
The story behind the making of Russian Ark is a fascinating one, and those viewing this monumental achievement on DVD will be able to watch how the director and his crew, one cameraman equipped with an specially crafted steady-cam, 850 actors, and over 2,000 extras achieved the remarkable task of loading in, rehearsing and shooting their film in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg in a mere 36 hours. As Sokurov states in the film’s featurette: “despite the technical achievement, if my film does not succeed on artistic merits, then it did not succeed at all”. Sokurov has little to worry about. The film is a wonder on so many accounts – from its conception and the imaginative way it allows history to come alive within the walls of a museum, to the astounding real-time execution on the part of the actors and crew – that in 100 years time this film will have been as influential in this century as Sergei Eisenstein’s early works were to the 20th century.

Bonus Track: For a more complete description, refer to the bottom of this document for the text of an article that I wrote on Russian Ark in March 2003)

2) Tamala 2010 (t.o.L. – Japan; Japanese release: 2002, limited US release: 2003)
What if your cat could boast that she was a secret agent, tattoo fetishist, astronaut, performance artist, thrill junky, chain smoker, repeatedly resurrected savior, capitalist icon, shoplifter, and sex-starved nymphomaniac with a potty mouth? What would happen if you woke up in a world where cats and dogs ruled society, living out an uneasy S&M relationship? The outcome could be that you are living in the film Tamala 2010 – which arrives with a fresh look at religious and philosophical themes and a probing of the capitalist ideal – all wonderfully animated in black and white Tex Avery meets Hello Kitty images.
Tamala 2010 takes an enormous amount of imagination to watch, and that alone makes this movie a potent treat. The cinematic rules of structure have been murdered – themes are jangled in a precious surrealism that is uniquely and unmistakably Japanese. And yet the story works on a level of logic that is epic (read: archetypal) and familiar (read: comic books), as it deftly accesses narratives found in the Hindu, Buddhist and Christian scriptures only to regurgitate them in images you’ll want to have stamped on beach towels and key chains.

3) The Revolution Will Not Be Televised (Ireland – Kim Bartley & Donnacha O’Brian)
This rare jewel celebrates what happens when a documentary crew lands in the right place at the right time – in this case, during the military coup on Hugo Chavez and his supporters in 2001, which failed within 48 hours. The filmmakers were lucky to have access to video footage from inside the coup, and the movie’s perspective is greatly broadened by presenting images from both sides of the standoff. Contrasting these events with Colin Powell’s press statements is a study in spin-politics and cover-up maneuvers that America has developed to great extents.

There’s Chavez, openly criticizing the Bush rhetoric on the subject of Iraq – there’s the CIA plane landing on Venezuelan tarmac – here’s the military, making the move to overthrow Chavez – there’s Powell on TV, calling Chavez unstable, stating US support of said military – here’s the incredible support of the people of Venezuela, both from inside Chavez’ camp and outside – there’s the media manipulation on Venezuelan TV, wrongly accusing Chavez supporters of open-firing on innocent civilians – here’s Chavez surprising the world with support of the people and the truth of the military involvement in the massacre mentioned above – here’s Chavez taking back the palace – there’s Colin Powell, stating that the US has supported Chavez all along….

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised is genuinely inspiring in times when US foreign and domestic politics are anything but, an achievement not likely to be duplicated again too soon. Get out and see it if you can – THE REVOLUTION WILL NOT BE TELEVISED!

4) Ten (Abbas Kiarostami – Iran/France; International release 2002, US Theatrical Release 2003)
Abbas Kiarostami’s (Taste of Cherry, The White Balloon) newest film places the camera on the dash of a car to document 10 conversations between the driver (a recent divorcee) and her sister, a friend, a prostitute, an elderly fundamentalist and on more than one occasion, her son. The ten short episodes appear to take place over the course of a few days in the city of Tehran.

It’s unusual to watch a film that uses the same two camera angles throughout, but it brings the faces of the subjects up close where they perform miraculously, revealing a natural form of characterization that is unique among the usual efforts of neo-realism. Kiarostami’s choice to “remove himself as much as possible from the direction” allows the subjective material to come to the forefront. The provocative conversations, like the hands of the clock, revolve around the axle of feminism and the role of women in contemporary Iranian society. The driver and her passengers wrestle with issues of self-image, dependency and independence, separation, spiritual devotion, and ultimately liberation in this urgent rumination on identity. Ten is a memorable film with a unique take on characterization and directing – which is to have almost no direction at all.
5) Spellbound (Jeffrey Blitz – U.S.)
Shot before and during the U.S. Spelling Bee Competition in Washington D.C. in 2000, Spellbound examines Americana through the eyes of 8 young contestants as they prepare to do battle. The film allows viewers the rare opportunity to see how different contestants polish their superhuman skills in phonemic awareness and visual memory for words while developing a keen sense of the culture that these youngsters inhabit.

The first half of the film presents the 8 central contestants preparing in their home environment and the second half of the film shows them in action – a non-stop sequence that has more genuine humor and suspense than the majority of the entries in this year’s comedy and thriller categories. A great film for kids and adults alike, Spellbound is a fine blend of social study and entertainment.

6) Spider (David Cronenberg – Canada/U.S.)
David Cronenberg’s newest effort resists some of the creepiness associated with his special- effect driven work of the past few decades to create a pared-down, character-driven story that allows Ralph Fiennes to do some of his best work, despite the fact that much of his dialogue is little more than a series of murmurs and incomprehensible utterances. Fiennes plays a Mr. Clegg, who has been released from an asylum and comes to a boarding house designed to integrate psychiatric patients back into society. As time passes and his environment triggers childhood memories, Clegg’s present merges with past, and different versions of his history play out in the physical space like double exposures of reality.

With its near-predictable ending aside, Spider does a great job of disorienting the audience as it burrows within the psyche of its subject. Mr. Clegg’s nickname, given to him by his mother, is both the film’s title and structure (web). Bradley Hall plays Mr. Clegg as a young man and gives a natural performance that exists comfortably in Cronenberg’s seamless interiors and landscapes.

Last but far from least is a fantastic performance by Miranda Richardson, whose work here is the finest effort by any actor I saw this year. Ms. Richardson divvies up ample doses of femme fatale among multiple characters to further realize the multi-dimensional aspect of Spider’s interior web. Howard Shore continues to his best work with Cronenberg, unearthing the music of the film rather than writing music to fill out the movie.

Based on the novel by Patrick McGrath who also penned Spider’s remarkable script.
(Official Selection Nomination – Cannes Film Festival)

7) In The Cut (Jane Campion – U.S.)
I never thought I would be writing about a film that featured Meg Ryan, but Jane Campion has done the unthinkable and given us a movie where we can at last fully respect the sugarcoated cover girl. Ryan delicately inhabits the soul of a writing professor at a downtown NY campus who witnesses the preliminaries of a murder by a man she may or may not have met before. An investigation takes place and Ms. Ryan and Mark Ruffalo (one of the two investigating officers) fall deep into some of the most successfully executed erotic sequences since Last Tango in Paris.

Jane Campion’s newest film achieves remarkable subtlety and suspense thanks to her unusually steady hand and pacing. The film moves like an arrested belly dance around a series of violent acts – but in places where similar efforts like Seven pound the viewer into submission with extreme gore drafted from tabloid sensationalism, In the Cut manages to mysteriously draw viewers into a more vulnerable space that brings on the tension in a way that few films have managed. Don’t resist this film because you’re not a Meg Ryan fan – In the Cut will alter whatever you thought you knew about her skills as an actor.

8) Elephant (Gus Van Sant – U.S.)
Gus Van Sant’s latest effort frees itself from traditional film technique in order to allow the camera and its many subjects room to create the kind of environment that could produce a Columbine-style massacre of innocents. Apart from the director’s familiar gazes into cloud-ridden skies, Van Sant mostly allows Elephant to pace the grounds of a high school like a truant student in search of a friend with whom to converse the travesties of isolation, anorexia, concert tickets, who is dating whom, and the proverbial “how’s it goin”, leaving any responsibility of summing up or rationalizing the film’s tragic events on the part of the viewer.

Elephant precisely captures a phenomenon that comes out of the works of Tarkovsky (and others) – the artistic decision to leave enough space in the film for the viewer to exist within the movie. In many films today the overzealous efforts of special effects, actors with enormous egos and directors with no patience for patience tend to populate contemporary cinema with an anxious roar that leaves viewers deafened by the din. In this respect American cinema accurately reflects a culture that seems to thrive on anxiety, or what could be called justified rage – the kind of inner angst that drives children to use automatic weapons on unsuspecting peers.

9) Carnage (Delphine Gleize – France/Spain)
First-time director Delphine Gleize turns in an impressive effort that flirts with the absurd in a way that is reminiscent of the films of Luis Bunel and Pedro Almaldovar in this merry-go-round of a movie that revolves around the unfortunate outcome of a bullfight. Structurally similar to works like Amores Perros, 21 Grams and the Wandering Rocks episode of James Joyce’s Ulysses, Carnage balances a variety of injuries and healings with a great deal more grace than the aforementioned cinematic works by director Alejandro Inaritu.

While some critics described the story as unclear and messy, I found the understated narrative strands and the suggestive nature of the relations between the parts of the kaleidoscope refreshing. The film’s sublime epiphanies and tender relations between the characters seemed to stay slow burning in memory throughout the following week – an all too rare event.

10) Once Upon a Time in Mexico (Robert Rodriquez – U.S.)
Clearly derivative but wildly entertaining, this epic plot-octopus calls on the ghosts of Sergio Leone and Sam Pekinpah to inform director/producer/composer Robert Rodriguez’ quest for the perfect blend of humor, shoot-‘em-up sequences, boomerang plot twists and stylistic beauty. The outcome is a Machiavellian Molotov cocktail of intrigue and action, driven by the kind of quirky performance we have come to expect from Johnny Depp and a sultry dreamscape of Mexican folklore delivered playfully by the gorgeous duo of Antonio Banderas and Selma Hayek. Better than dinner and a dozen Margaritas at Mom is Cooking, (and certainly better for your health), Once Upon a Time in Mexico is all you need to start a riot in your very own home.

Hits and Fizzles in 2003
What started out as a slow year for movies ended up producing a crop that made it tough to settle on this year’s list of treasures. Secretary delivered an original spin on the comedic aspect of sexual politics and allowed us to see just how good Maggie Gyllenhaal could be at being bad; Pretty Dirty Things continued to prove what a great director Stephen Frears is; and the erotic poetry of Girl with the Pearl Earring came in strong at the end of the year with Scarlett Johansen and Colin Firth peering deep into the feel and rhythms of 17th century Flemish painting.

2003 also gave witness to the completion of two trilogies that were years in the making. The Matrix series seemed to crumble beneath the weight of its own overly manufactured and mass-produced cyber-girth. What started out as a great opening effort eventually failed as the Wachowski brothers opted to work in capacious formats that brought on the inevitable Star Wars style battle sequences, stripping away all the visceral qualities of what made the action sequences in the opening work so potent and entertaining.

On the other hand, the Lord of the Rings trilogy stayed consistently grounded in the world of medieval folklore, imaginatively presenting a rich fantasy world that didn’t allow the special in special effects to get in the way. The performances throughout the large cast were on equally secure footing, and the trilogy offered the characters an epic arc to work through that was ultimately satisfying for an all-ages crowd.

Kill Bill Volume I opened this year after a long process of production and a considerable pause for Uma Thurman to return from the throes of motherhood. When Quentin Tarantino presented the four-hour film to Miramax, the studio’s response was to cut it down to less than 3 hours or release his picture in two parts. Tarantino wisely chose the latter. Since the film was conceived as a whole and really should have been released as such, I have chosen to wait until I have seen the complete work before commenting on it.

As always, there were a few efforts that received critical acclaim and street chatter that hardly deserved the attention. Mystic River failed on many accounts: its heavy-handed direction (how it compares with Eastwood’s The Unforgiven is beyond me), its over-wrought acting (exception: Kevin Bacon), its sophomoric metaphors (we get it, our post 9/11 penchant for revenge is BAD) and its borrowed themes (Act 1 courtesy of Bostonian Catholic pedophilia, Act 2 courtesy of Titus Andronicus, Act 3 courtesy of nearly any Scorsese film, and Act 4 courtesy of Lady Macbeth) were ultimately disappointing. Lost in Translation showed that Sofia Coppola was capable of producing a nice atmosphere for Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansen to move around in, but her superficial view of Japanese culture was offensive. Bad Santa made me laugh out-loud several times, but its concept read like a bottom-drawer effort by John Waters, hardly on par with Zwigoff’s unforgettable Crumb or his unique vision of L.A.-style teen angst in Ghost World. Finally, Winged Migration had a fantastic visual style & camera technique and viewers will find it hard to forget some of the wonderful birds and their habitats that were explored, but the musical score and invasive voice-over plunged it to a level that fits in a category with Wild Kingdom re-runs.

Re:Discoveries

Sergio LEONE - Once Upon a Time in the West
I’ve been a fan of Leone’s infamous spaghetti-westerns since puberty. Why I have waited all this time to see Once Upon a Time in the West is way beyond me. I’m sure most of you have long celebrated its awesome (and never successfully imitated) opening title sequence; its ability to bring a complex portrait of a woman into the western genre; its unique criticism of the origins of corporate America and the dangers that accompany it; and its marvelous and multi-layered yarn all wrapped up in that unmistakable style that is uniquely Sergio Leone.

Rainer Werner FASSBINDER:
Out of all the films of Fassbinder’s that I have seen over the years, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul stands out as a great achievement in taboo smashing. Crossing lines of age, race, and cultural gaps the size of a southern-California freeway, two unlikely people form a romantic relationship that has comic and near-tragic (not melodramatic) results.

Masahiro SHINODA:
Pale Flower (1963) is a Tokyo gangster film that successfully uses the lack of action as an element of suspense. Characters chase each other around the metaphorical habit-trails of organized crime in the seedier side of Tokyo nightlife. Classic black and white photography frames a mysterious narrative about a hit man that falls in love with a wildly independent gambler in sharp and unforgettable images. Both Shinoda films have brilliant soundtracks by Toru Takemitsu that merge with the film in a dreamlike manner.

Double Suicide (1965) is diametrically opposed in terms of style to Pale Flower, where the latter’s post-noir pulp style surrenders to Noh Theater minimalism and costumes to better expose the passions between three ill-fated lovers.

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