Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Top 10 Films of 2005

Due to a severe lack of free time this year, I have minimalized my descriptions and refused an introduction. Having said that, and realizing that this could easily be misconstrued for an introduction, I will step up and list ten films that caught my attention this year. Are they really "in order"? I never know. I do know that Downfall resides firmly at the top.

1) Downfall
2) Broken Flowers
3) Saraband
4) Grizzly Man
5) El Crimen Perfecto
6) Pretty Persuasion
7) Nobody Knows
8) Kung Fu Hustle
9) I (heart) Huckabees
10) Ballet Russe

1) Downfall (Der Untergang)
For a more complete view of this modern masterpiece, go to "previous posts" and locate Going Down with Der Untergang.

This is one of the finest films to be made in years, so if you missed it on the big screen, try to catch it at home on the box. Bruno Ganz leads an impressive stable of actors through the course of Hitler’s last days in the bunker during the fall of Berlin in 1945. Rather than portay Hitler as a mad-dog, as other efforts have portrayed him in earlier films, Der Untergang achieves greater depth and pathos through establishing Der Fuhrer as a complex and even sympathetic human being. You’ll look long and hard to find a film that boasts better direction, and the palpable performances throughout descend the viewer into the decaying world of one of history’s most powerful individuals.

2)Broken Flowers
Bill Murray offers one of his most satisfying minimalist efforts as a man who is encouraged to take a long look at his romantic past. Critics have stated that the stars of the film are really the women that surround him, but to insist solely on the pace and thematic summersaults that the women lend the film would be to lose the pristine balancing act that Murray manages on the other end of the scale. Broken Flowers is a highly satisfying, albeit sad film about a man searching the course of his folly by meeting face to face several women he has disregarded for greener pastures. Jim Jarmusch continues to refine his vision while remaining steady on the trail he has been blazing since his opening gambit, Permanent Vacation(1980). The pace may read too slow for many American audiences, but if that's your only consideration then you're missing the point. (Think on it: you can't rush a good long look at yourself...)

3) Saraband
After retiring from cinema some 25 years ago (in order to focus on writing and direction for the theater), Ingmar Bergman has released another of his probing chamber dramas based on characters from his monumental Scenes from a Marriage (a 5-hour series made for Swedish television in the 1970’s and later released in a 3-hour theatrical version). While you won’t find a glut of material that is new from Bergman in this rewarding return, Saraband nonetheless rests firmly alongside some of his earlier outstanding character studies: Persona; Through a Glass, Darkly; or Winter Light. The switch here is that the focus is turned on characters who are dealing with Bergman’s familiar existential queries while isolated in the introspective landscape of old age (while charting different themes than his earlier masterpiece Wild Strawberries).

For Bergman lovers, Saraband is essential viewing; for the uninitiated wanting to better know his work, this entry may not be the best place to start – the depth of inquiry into madness, incest and existential decline may seem overly harsh and unflinching to the point of excess. Instead, go back to some of the earlier classics (Summer with Monika, The Seventh Seal, The Virgin Spring, or his epic masterpiece, Fanny & Alexander). All critical concerns aside, there have been few filmmakers who can match Bergman’s intensity without approaching the country of the absurd or declining into overwrought melodrama. Somehow that chilly Swedish homeboy knows how to keep it real…

Finally, to rediscover Marianne and Joseph (principal actors from Scenes from a Marriage, played to perfection by Liv Ullman and Erland Josephson) in this late stage of life, and to learn of Marianne’s mastery of her self in this closing chapter, Saraband perhaps offers his more faithful viewers a note of resolution at the close of a long career of fierce psychological inquiry.

4) Grizzly Man
Werner Herzog has had an illustrious and celebrated career dodging the stylistic and narrative concerns posited by his fellow colleagues of the New German Cinema. In Grizzly Man, he uses found footage from the home movies of Timothy Treadwell to launch his documentary on an individual that tried to exist in harmony with grizzly bears in the Arctic Wilderness (along with a ghost partner that anonymously photographed the bulk of the experiences). See this remarkable film by one of cinema’s greatest madmen about one of America’s most unlikely protagonists – Grizzly Manis the 2005 wild card of the year that you won't want to miss.

5) El Crimen Perfecto
This unexpected Spanish chucklefest broadcasts the story of a department store manager who loves to woo women on the job. Eventually greed outweighs his libido and leads him to move beyond passion and into some rather messy crimal activity. When a downtrodden female employee discovers a resultant secret, the tables turn and a thin veil of patriarchal order collapses. Perfecto is riddled with original sight gags, comically absurd situations (ala Amaldovar), clever plot twists, and an unbridled humor that could urge some of our more jaded viewers to gush with laughter.

6)Pretty Persuasion
Evan Rachel Wood’s performance knocks it out of the park with her portrayal of a young girl who, while not finding the proper inroads to Hollywood stardom, decides to enlist a few friends to bring sexual harassment charges against one of their teachers in order to gain fame and popularity. Pretty Persuasion has the wit of earlier teen-satires like Election, but is a much darker portrait of the cynicism of today’s privileged youth and they price they pay when convenience offers everything at a moment’s notice.

7) Nobody Knows
This sober portrait of three siblings living in Tokyo after their unreliable mother disappears will likely take audiences by surprise. Try as they might to retain a sense of normalcy, the children's closed society caves in on itself, all without a hint of moralizing by way of filmmaker Kore-eda Hirokazu. Viewers are offered a close look at the effects on the psyches of unwanted children and the social and emotional perils that accompanies the abandoned youth of today. Based on a true story, the film, which took 15 years to make, has a universal message that may leave viewers haunted long after the final credits have faded to black.

8) I (heart) Huckabees
Could existentialism, or the search for it, be considered quintessentially comedic? This absurd comedy on a theme of figuring it all out faces off with strange bedfellows – an ecology advocate and an advertising executive – and strips them of some of their socio-economic trappings to reveal similar truths that lurk beneath their wildly divergent surfaces. Remnant of the brand of humor that exists in films like Being John Malkovich, Huckabees plays with the ridiculous notion of putting the search for self in the hands of “existential detectives” (played to delirious perfection by Lily Tomlin and Dustin Hoffman). The perfectly cast company moves effortlessly through this modern farce and blends in with the landscape of Los Angeles to reveal a sublime resonance for anyone that has spent time in that city of swollen dreams.

9) Kung Fu Hustle
The blurb on the DVD label for Kung Fu Hustle reads: “Kill Bill meets Wile E. Coyote”. While that gives an inkling of the physical pyrotechnics of Stephen Chow’s newest work, it doesn’t nearly reveal the originality of the direction and stylistic brilliance, nor does it hint at the desire to waylay evil western influences with (post)modern-day communist zeal. Power to the people!

10) Ballet Russe
The Ballet Russe, a band of mostly Russian refugees stranded in Paris after their exodus from Russia after the October Revolution, is the center attraction in this breathtaking documentary that traces the further development of one the greatest artistic expressions of human movement. Far from a stuffy documentary about what many may feel is a snobbish artform aimed at the cultural elite, Ballet Russe is a treasure chest of fascinating characters (many of the original members of the company are not only still alive, but have never realized that they have slipped into old age), a bird's eye view of the evolution of contemporary ballet, an intriguing story of how several bold individuals fought to stand at the helm, and a poignant look at a moment in time when art was a vital aspect of everyday society (take a look at the thousands of fans lined up in NY city, Paris, or London to catch a performance). See it if for no other reason than to witness the achingly beautiful archival footage of the great artists of ballet working their magic (Danilova, Markova, Toumanova, Fokine) along with the great artists that collaborated with the company to realize some of their finest masterpieces (Picasso, Matisse, Dali, Stravinsky, Nijinsky, Ravel).

The list above is a desire to represent as many styles and themes as possible. Here are some other films that really made a nice impression as well.

Capote surpassed my expectations, and the credit was mostly due to Philip Seymour Hoffman, who resisted the obvious urge to play Truman as a charicature in order to allow the groudbreaking writer the complex reading he deserves.

Syrianna was a really admirable film as it refrained from trying to sum up an extremely complex set of problems (the situation in the Middle East today)in a neatly packaged mainstream film. Instead, while remaining in the tradition of Soderberg's earlier Traffic, a series of vignettes unfold where opposing ideologies can co-exist in a way that allows a more complete critical perspective. Viewers that complained the film was hard to comprehend as a whole missed the point - there is no absolute truth in such situations, and to pretend such a truth existed and could be portrayed in this format is guilty of trivializing all the anguish, deceit, death, and honor that has been at stake in the Middle East over the past few decades.

Good Night and Good Luck was most enjoyable, and I would hope that anyone who sees it would become painfully aware of how far short we have fallen from the promise of television broadcasting at the dawn of its conception.

The Assasination of Richard Nixon allowed Sean Penn the chance to descend into the deep end as Samuel J. Bicke, a salesman who lunges at the American Dream but slides into oblivion instead. After losing it all, his desperate attempt at existential salvation is to make an attempt on the life of the 37th President of the United States. Rather than merely offering a morbid reimagining of Death of a Salesman, the film expands into the wider arena of the Watergate era and gives us a spot-on reading of America at the onset of a moral and political crisis that remains with us today.

Favorite Re-releases to hit the theaters:
The Passenger (Antonioni)
Elevator to the Gallows (Louis Malle)
Classe Tous Risques! (Sautet)

Favorite DVD (re)releases of 2005
Hari Kari (Kobayashi)
Ugetzu (Mizoguchi)
Story of a Prostitute (Suzuki)
Man Who Fell To Earth (Roeg)
Andrej Wajda – Three War Films (A Generation, Kanal, Ashes & Diamonds)
Au Hassard Baltazar (Bresson)
An Angel At My Table (Campion)
Bad Timing (Roeg)
The Exorcist: re-mastered & re-edited (Friedkin)

Favorite Revival Picks/Series:
PFA’s Far East Film Festival
The Castro Theater’s 70mm Festival
The Castro Theater’s Godzilla Festival
The Balboa Theater’s Samurai Festival

Things to Look for in 2006:

Claude Sautet’s Classe Tous Risques has been remastered and may just show up at your local rep-theater (or video store) this year. If it does, check out this great French noir with a unique slant – an anti-hero tragedy with lots of heart.

The Criterion Collection is set to launch one of Luis Bunuel’s Mexico City masterpieces: Viridiana has a release date of late February 2006 – it should hit your local video stores soon after. Also coming soon on Criterion’s new releases list is Akira Kurosawa’s polished gem The Bad Sleep Well.


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