2006 Favorites

I saw only 22 movies from 2006, so after the top 10 (listed below), there isn’t much in terms of honorable mentions. To that end, I would offer the latest installment of Michael Apted’s Up Series, 49 Up, as well as Spike Lee’s other film of 2006, Inside Man. There are also a significant number of films I have yet to see. They are (in alphabetical order): An Inconvenient Truth, Babel, Battle in Heaven, Be With Me, Cavite, Climates, Fast Food Nation, The Fountain, The Good German, Half Nelson, Iron Island, The Last King of Scotland, Lady in the Water, Little Children, Marie Antoinette, Miami Vice, Offside, Old Joy, Pan’s Labyrinth, Play, Requiem, The Road to Guantanamo, The Science of Sleep, Still Life, and Volver.

1. The Child (dir. Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne)

I saw this late on an April weeknight in a lonely art house theater. The paltry number of people in attendance (me) would give some indication of its box office success, but couldn’t be further from denoting the film’s power and grace. Sonia (Déborah François) has just given birth to her boyfriend Bruno’s (Jérémie Renier) son, and arrives home from the hospital alone, only to find Bruno has sublet her apartment for another couple of days. Temporarily homeless, Sonia tracks down Bruno only to eventually discover his irresponsibility is much greater than even she could imagine (the less you know about the plot, the better). The Dardenne’s trademark handheld style, close-ups, and powerful moral dilemmas are all on display here, used to their full effect. Only this time, they offer a final emotional punch in the gut to punctuate the tension they’ve built from the film’s earliest moments.

2. The Queen (dir. Stephen Frears)

I hate previews. That probably places me in a distinct minority, but there it is. Usually they are so obvious in their manipulation of the audience (often through the use of music and editing) that I am taken out of it almost immediately. Yet, when I saw the preview for The Queen back in October, a film I’d not previously heard about, I surprisingly found myself emotionally engaged from the beginning. That strong sense carried right into this film, and while I concede that the preview could have just found a clever way to pull my strings, I’d rather like to think that it is the persona of Queen Elizabeth herself, struggling in the days after Princess Diana’s death, that drew me into it. The Queen is a person who, unlike anyone else I can think of in the West, can be seen as a stand in for tradition and honor, two concepts sorely lacking in our developed, capitalist, upward and onward, win-at-all-costs society. So, as those values are violently called into question, the beauty of Frears’ film lies in the fact that he neither tips his hand toward tradition or modernization, or rather, he tips his hand to both.

3. The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (dir. Cristi Puiu)

Like L’Enfant, Puiu’s film relies on hand-held cameras, natural lighting, and a couple of understated performances that are more demanding than they appear. In particular, Ion Fiscuteanu as Lazarescu gives a beautifully physical performance, while Luminita Gheorghiu as the ambulance nurse offers a complex mix of apathy and compassion for her patient. Even though the title telescopes the ending, this movie is much more than watching a man die. Rather, it might fit nicely into the road movie genre, as the titular character, feeling ill, embarks on a journey (mostly via ambulance and stretcher) that takes him to his end. Along the way, he makes a variety of stops, receiving updates on how he’s doing, judgment for his failings, and in most cases, rejection of treatment. Neither the social critique nor the biblical and literary allusions are ever far from the surface, but they are woven into the fabric of the film, a film which echoes the cry of another frustrated soul: “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

4. When the Levees Broke (dir. Lee)

Spike Lee’s four-act documentary on the disaster surrounding Hurricane Katrina is simply a marvelous piece of filmmaking. He brings together such a wide variety of voices as he chronicles the events and personal stories from beginning to end. Thus, as the film begins with nervous trepidation in view of the approaching storm, we eventually move to disbelief, frustration, despair, and anger, all the while being reminded of the abiding (mostly Christian) faith of many of these people. Lee’s use of montage, alongside music from his regular composer (and New Orleans native) Terence Blanchard, is especially strong here in its ability to evoke mood and a sense of place (and eerily reminiscent of his work in his post-9/11 film 25th Hour). Lee’s images remind us at once of the terrible destruction that remains in the city and of the spirited people that continue to populate and rebuild it.

5. Three Times (dir. Hou Hsiao-hsien)

I had the pleasure of seeing the single screening of this film in my area, at the Asian Film Festival of Dallas, where it played to a full house. The organizers deserve credit for bringing such an important film to Texas. Hou’s latest offers three separate stories, taking place in different places and time periods, yet all of which star the same two principle actors. The first is played as a straight up teen romance from the ‘60’s, with pop songs, chewing gum, and clouds of thick smoke to set the atmosphere. The second installment finds our couple in 1911, she a working girl in an uppity brothel, he a customer with connections. Here, while the warmth of the first segment bleeds over into the second, it’s quickly quenched as the social and political realities become apparent. Finally, the last installment, which takes place in the modern day, finds our couple looking older than ever, beaten down with the pain, suffering, and apathy that life in the modern world has brought them. Where the ‘60’s offered unbridled innocence and the early twentieth century had social structure to offer some stability in spite its constraints, Three Times offers a much bleaker picture of contemporary youth.

6. Army of Shadows (dir. Jean-Pierre Melville)

Some might think this is cheating, but seeing as I saw this in a theater as part of a regular release, I am including it. I’ve found in the six months since then that this film has only grown in my estimation. Technically one might call this a war film, but instead of artillery fire and piles of rubble, the battles are largely interior, with the greatest damage done to people’s hearts and minds. Director Melville follows several members of the French resistance both in their attempts to thwart their German occupiers in WWII and to survive the constant threat of capture and death. While we see little of their actual encounters with the Germans, the tension over these people’s fates never subsides. Lino Ventura’s turn as the resistance chief is especially notable here, as it’s filled with the kind of quiet forcefulness we’ve seen more recently from Olivier Gourmet in Le Fils.

7. A Scanner Darkly (dir. Richard Linklater)

Richard Linklater’s first film of 2006 made use of the rotoscoping technique from 2001’s Waking Life to great effect in animating this film tracking the descent and delusions of substance abuse. As the film is narrated from the perspective of Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves), it becomes clear that whatever success he’s had as a narc is being compromised by his dealing of and/or addiction to the new drug of choice, Substance D. Linklater’s animating over the top of the filmed image here works so well largely because it takes us a step away from reality, yet in doing so, brings us closer to the reality of drug abuse and the skewed perspective that results.

8. Forgiving Dr. Mengele (dir. Bob Hercules and Cheri Pugh)

There are quite a number of films that attempt to deal with, portray, and make judgments about the horrors of the Holocaust, yet few if any that I have seen offer anything as substantive as the frank portrayal of forgiveness on display here. As she’s judged and commented upon through any number of observers, Eva Mozes Kor presses on in her quest to offer forgiveness as her response to the horrors she and her sister endured at the hands of Mengele and his associates. With obstacles at seemingly every turn, Kor continues to bring remarkable energy, wit, occasional frustration, and grace to make clear to the world the power of forgiveness to heal old wounds.

9. A Prairie Home Companion (dir. Robert Altman)

A poignant film about death and the end of good things in this life that manages, in spite of its heavy subject, to remain light and airy and often quite funny throughout. This constant tension works well and helps to propel the film, which is absent of a strong narrative structure. As the camera, which is in constant motion, tracks both back- and on-stage activity during an airing of Garrison Keilor’s well-known live radio show, we are treated to a little of everything – comedy, mystery, slapstick, music, tall tales, and even a touch of the supernatural. It’s this latter element that gives the film a great deal of its weightiness, and offers, in light of Altman’s recent passing, a glimpse into the mind of a man nearing his end.

10. Buffalo Boy (dir. Minh Nguyen-Vo)

Set in Vietnam during French rule in the 1940’s, Nguyen-Vo’s first feature takes us into the lives of buffalo herders through the eyes of a teenage boy working for the survival of his family. During the rainy season when most of the grass is underwater, the herders take their neighbor’s buffalo (for a price, of course) to higher ground and wait for the water to recede. The images in this film are stunning, with regular wide shots of the horizon, which is constantly framed directly across the middle of the screen. This effect results both in a sense that with the water melting into the sky there will be no end to the flood, yet because of the strong horizon line, there’s also a balance to the shots, as if there’s an alternative to the water. This fits in nicely with the dual role the water plays for these people, both as a hindrance to their lives, but also as a life-giving source which brings fish and prepares the way to grow rice.

Favorites of 2005

2005 has been a year of changes for me – most significantly, the birth of my son, who has pretty much rearranged all my priorities. I now am less able to get to the theater, which means I see less that’s current. That results in a pretty minuscule list. Yet (and this is one of the other changes), I was noticing that even before he was born, my wife and I were less interested in the theater anyway, and not because I don’t like the theater. I list watching a film in a crowded theater as one of the more pleasurable activities in life.

Instead, as I reflected on our reasons for avoiding the theater, I hit on a single thing that dampened our enthusiasm: the dearth of interesting options available to us here in Dallas. First, neither of us gets too enthusiastic about big blockbuster, epic kind of films any more. Neither are we generally interested in the weekly horror, action, or comedy offering. Thus, we tend to seek out more complex fare. Let me illustrate our problem: in the city limits, we have three “arthouse” theaters (two Landmark, one Angelika). Currently, one of the Landmark theaters is screening Narnia on two of its screens, with The Producers on the third. The other has Brokeback Mountain on three, Capote on one, and Good Night, and Good Luck on one. I cannot see how any of these films justify Landmark’s little opening, played before every film (“The language of film is universal”). Rather, it appears the language of film is English. The Angelika is not faring much better, currently showing the likes of Munich, Casanova, Pride & Prejudice, and Match Point, all of which can be found at the local megaplex (which is not to say any of these films isn’t necessarily worthy). But where’s the unique programming? What about traveling retrospectives, classics, smaller films, or a steady diet of important contemporary international film? These are too few in such a big and diverse metropolitan area.

All of which leads to my year end list. It’s going to be shorter than in years past, reflecting the fewer number of films I’ve seen. But I note it includes three heavily dramatic pieces (1, 3, and 6), along with four films that have a strong comedic sensibility (2, 4, and 5). Finally, to compensate for the shorter list, I’d like to offer a list of older films I’ve seen for the first time, all of which surpass virtually everything new I’ve seen this year. The rankings in both lists are not meant to reflect quality, or which film is “better” than another, but rather, which films I am most looking forward to revisiting and spending some quality time with.

2005 Favorites:
1. Saraband: Bergman’s final (?) film, and easily the best thing I’ve seen this year, a sequel to his earlier Scenes From a Marriage. I was struck by two things: First, Bergman’s attention to emotional detail. Second, the surprisingly hopeful and brilliant ending. It both ties the rest of the film together thematically, and provides some basis on which to go forward. Beautifully done.
2. Funny Ha Ha and Mutual Appreciation: Funny Ha Ha, like Saraband, is actually a couple of years old, but received a theatrical release just this past year. Writer/Director Andrew Bujalski injects his film about an aimless 23 year old college graduate with humor, dramatic conflict, and a kind of pathos that really is endearing. The latter film is actually Bujalski’s effort from this past year. Shot in b&w with the same intimacy as his previous effort, Mutual Appreciation builds on the earlier work in humor, characterization, and his excellent taste in music.
3. The New World: Malick’s creation is one of my favorites from this year. It has all of the lyrical quality I’ve come to expect from him, but this one offers a subtle critique of the Eden presented early in the film. It’s almost as if the film grows from adolescent to adult before our eyes.
4. Look at Me: Co-Writer/Director/Star Agnès Jaoui has improved upon her debut, The Taste of Others. She has a way of taking a pretty standard story and giving it great dialogue, an emotional core, and the subtlest of pointers toward what might be a better way of being.
5. Howl’s Moving Castle: Miyazaki’s glorious film, which is visually so inventive and interesting that I can’t help but include it here. And yet another heroine for us to connect with.
6. Capote: Subtle and conflicted, with a standout performance by Phillip Seymour Hoffmann, long a favorite of mine. The rest of the acting is top-notch, and I especially appreciate director Bennett Miller’s willingness to give the film a more meditative quality.

Other 2005 Films I Enjoyed: Up and Down; Broken Flowers; 2046; Good Night, And Good Luck

Still to See: L’Enfant, Caché, Trilogy: The Weeping Meadow, The Best of Youth, The Wayward Cloud, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, Tristram Shandy, Hell, Hawaii Oslo, Tony Takatani, The World, Grizzly Man, The White Diamond, Duma, 3-Iron, Me and You and Everyone We Know, L’Intrus, The Squid and the Whale, Wallace and Gromit, A History of Violence, Syriana, Munich…

Older Films I Loved:
15. Close-Up (1990): Kiarostami’s half drama, half documentary. The interplay here between truth and reality was fascinating, though the director wisely keeps us connected with the central character.
14. More Miyazaki [Nausicaä (1984)/Porco Rosso (1992)]: I finally caught up with these older works of my favorite animator. I loved in ingenuity of Nausicaa, and the central characters in Porco Rosso.
13. The Flowers of St. Francis (1950): Beautiful, strange, funny, and heartfelt. Simple faith on display.
12. All or Nothing (2002): Mike Leigh at his best, intimate family drama. Wonderful stuff.
11. Sanjuro (1962): Maybe the funniest Kurosawa film I’ve seen, not to mention clever, and Mifune at the height of his powers.
10. The Searchers (1956): John Ford and John Wayne, maybe the best Western I’ve ever seen.
9. The films of the Dardennes [La Promesse (1996)/Rosetta (1999)]: Caught up with some of their earlier work, which is wonderfully rewarding, especially Rosetta. I’m still waiting for a chance to see their newest effort, L’Enfant.
8. Time of the Wolf (2004): Disturbing, (mostly) restrained apocalyptic vision from director Michael Haneke.
7. A Renewal of My Appreciation for Alfred Hitchcock [The Wrong Man (1956)/The Birds (1963)/The 39 Steps (1935)]: Caught a few of his films this year, and these were all wonderful. I’m learning to love the power of suggesting inherent in his films.
6. More Ingmar Bergman [Fanny and Alexander (1982)/The Virgin Spring (1960)/Scenes from a Marriage (1973)/Persona (1967)]: I especially connected with the first couple here, though I appreciate all of them on different levels.
5. Stalker (1979): Having seen most of Tarkovsky’s work once, this is the one I connected with most on a first viewing. I was mesmerized all the way through. The rest of his work is in need of another go around.
4. The Films of Tsai Ming-liang [Rebels of the Neon God (1992)/What Time is it There? (2000)/The Skywalk is Gone (2002)/Goodbye Dragon Inn (2003)]: I’m guessing Tsai’s films are going to become even more significant for me in the years to come. The meditative pace is refreshing, and Tsai seems to have his finger on where modern society is or is headed. Looking forward to seeing his other stuff – Vive L’Amour is next.
3. The Apu Trilogy [Pather Panchali (1955)/Aparajito (1957)/The World of Apu (1959)]: Beautiful series of films from the late Satyajit Ray following the life of Apu, from boyhood, through adolescence, to adulthood. Sensitive, moving stuff.
2. Late Spring (1949): Just saw this film from Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu. It’s such a beautiful portrayal of family, getting older, and post-WWII life in Japan. The complexity of the emotional content snuck up on me as I neared the end. Wonderful.
1. Werckmeister Harmonies (2000): This is another of those disturbing apocalyptic visions, but is filmed in stunning black and white. The music sets the tone for what really amounts to film as poetry for director Bela Tarr. It’s enigmatic, troubling, and wondrous. One of the best films I’ve seen in the last several years.

Other Older Films I Enjoyed (in no particular order): The Twilight Samurai (2002); The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926); Gertrud (1964); The Great Dictator (1940); Cool Hand Luke (1967); Buffalo ’66 (1998); Control Room (2004); The Lost Weekend (1945); Dersu Uzala (1974); Days of Heaven (1978); Open City (1946); At Five in the Afternoon (2003); The Elephant Man (1980); Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989); Sansho the Bailiff (1954); Metropolitan (1990); The Celebration (1998), Born Into Brothels (2004), Intimate Strangers (2004)