Favorite Discoveries of 2008

Things are just the same as they always were, only, you’re the same as you were, too, so I guess things will never be the same again.

-Lucy (Irene Dunne), to her soon-to-be ex-husband Jerry (Cary Grant) in Leo McCarey’s witty, marriage-themed comedy, The Awful Truth

I see a healthy number of films each year, and I enjoy most of them on some level. At the end of the year though, those that come to mind are those that I want to come back to, the films that I can look at and say: you’re that same as you always were, so I guess things will never be the same again. I am thinking of those films that change the way I look at the world or propel me toward greater love and kindness in relationships, those that make me reconsider my commitments or capture something beautiful, true or good. Here are ten discoveries this year that fit that category for me:

3 Bad Men (Ford, 1926)
John Ford’s first masterpiece, this silent film shows early in his career his gift for mythologizing the American west. He brings together melodrama and comedy in such a seamless fashion as the film takes on an epic stature during the lead-up to the Dakota land rush. Here too we see one of the earliest instances in Ford of his “good-bad men” characters, tainted heroes who serve justice and the community even as they remain outside both.

The Awful Truth (McCarey, 1937)
I quoted it above, and its clever, quick-hitting dialogue immediately makes this an enjoyable comedy about a couple on the way to getting a divorce. However, what most impresses me about the film is its commitment to its moral vision—imbuing the marriage of these two selfish people with an almost sacramental reverence, a point that becomes most clear in the film’s final moments.

To Be or Not to Be (Lubitsch, 1942)
Many years ago I saw The Shop Around the Corner and knew that were I in the mood for good comedy, I could trust director Ernst Lubitsch. Sadly, it took me all those years to see another, and this was simply magnificent. The writing is stellar, while the timing and delivery rarely misfire. However, I loved most the deft alternating between screwball comedy and the dark themes of its 1942 Poland locale. Lubitsch, in following this Polish acting troupe as its members attempt to mount resistance to the Nazi invaders, wants us to laugh all the way through, yet never forget the harsh realities of the time.

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Black Narcissus (Powell & Pressberger, 1947)
Black Narcissus marks my first exposure to the directing team of Powell & Pressberger, and I suspect I’ll track down as many of their films as possible in the near future. A story of a small group of nuns traveling to the Himalayas to open a school, the film possesses a profoundly spiritual quality to it, delving into the pursuit of true purity, the roots of evil and discouragement, and most significantly, what it means to humbly serve a people in the name of Christ.

Out of the Past (Tourneur, 1947)
Out of the Past possesses all the key elements of a quintessential film noir—the dame (Jane Greer) in distress who’s more dangerous than she appears, the hard-boiled loner (Robert Mitchum) trying to rise above the corruption, the slick businessman (Kirk Douglas) who really does believe money buys anything, and of course there’s that style—beautiful black and white photography, lonely barrooms and hilltop houses, and dialogue that suggests stores of never-ending confidence or masks deep-seated fears. Director Jacques Tourneur’s mise en scène creates a visual tension that works well in this kind of film–two people talk in a cafe while a mysterious third listens in the background; two lovers meet on a beach near fishing boats and nets, hoping not to get caught; and so on. We wonder as the film rolls on whether Mitchum’s Jeff Bailey can rise above his past, whether he can actually start anew, and all the while a church sits silently in the background of the small town, leaving us wondering if it has anything to offer this poor lost soul.

Early Summer (Ozu, 1951)
I really need to see more Ozu. Every time I see one of his films, I am amazed by the way he uses simple, everyday occurrences among families to create deeply moving stories. The rich characterizations add depth, but Ozu’s camera in particular has a way of capturing the interaction between family members that can emphasize the connectedness they have with one another while subtly revealing the fault lines that threaten to separate them. I especially appreciate Early Summer for its comic handling of his common, familial theme, yet he does so without compromising the emotional depth of their relationships.

I Vitelloni (Fellini, 1953)
I caught up on early Fellini this year, and while I enjoyed them all, I Vittelloni was my favorite of the bunch. It’s quiet and unassuming narrator drifts through the film, often put upon but rarely standing up for himself. Instead, his loud and boisterous friends require constant attention as they get themselves entangled in various troubles. Fellini is just so good at capturing the passions of youth, in all their fleeting joy, but also in the inevitable pain that follows. The ending here, as in most of his 50s films, expresses the poignance and heartache of life in the modern world.

The Sun Shines Bright (Ford, 1953)/ Judge Priest (Ford, 1934)
These are John Ford’s two films based on a series of Judge Priest stories, set in late 19th century Kentucky. The 1934 Will Rogers film is simply delightful, filled with comedy and surprising pathos. However, the lesser-known later film from 1953, starring Charles Winninger, was my favorite viewing experience of the year. The story finds Priest in the midst of a re-election campaign, thus much comedy comes out of him trying to drum up support. However, Ford’s portrayal of the town as a splintered little society, with its drunken failures, judgmental prudes, and people of competing interests. Priest, as a respected citizen, stands in the midst of all this, and finds himself in the role of chief mediator—everyone comes to him to solve their problems, but with a close election expected, he may not be good enough to lead them any longer. As the film follows Priest, we see a story of an aging man, looking out at a town that has largely passed him by, but one that still desperately needs him. His wisdom, courage, and sly sense of humor make Priest one of my favorite characters in film. I would be remiss were I not to mention the film’s formal control, expressed best in its climax. This includes what to my mind is the greatest sequence in any Ford film: a funeral procession that proceeds largely without dialogue for several minutes, ending with a sermon at the church. The poetry of Ford’s cinema is never clearer than in this scene—beautiful and humane.

The Conversation (Coppola, 1974)
The movie Coppola made between the first two Godfather movies, I probably prefer it to both of those more championed films. It’s less epic, to be sure, but its ideas seem more complex. Here we have a man who believes that in secretly recording a conversation, he can discover the truth about the two people he tapes. But as he continues to listen, this simplistic notion of truth begins to disintegrate, causing him to lose his confidence in technology, and ultimately himself. What began as a simple contract job becomes a life-altering event. Coppola’s sound design is always interesting here, as the film uses snippets of the original taped conversation throughout the film to communicate the break-up of this man’s mind. It continues to stand as a profound and surprisingly contemporary commentary on modern society.

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Satantango (Tarr, 1994)
I finally caught up with Bela Tarr’s seven-and-a-half hour masterpiece, and it was everything I’d hoped it would be. Grim, yes, but somehow, through watching the bleak existence of a small group of people, the film reveals some spark, something truly human. Allowing space for more than tragedy, Tarr finds moments for laughter, celebration, and compassion as well. Tarr’s lengthy shots encourage contemplation, and as the human condition plays itself out in this film, there is much to consider about how we see ourselves in these people and how we react to the kinds of people portrayed in this film.

Other discoveries this year: Cat People (Tourneur, 1942), Young Mr. Lincoln (Ford, 1939), They Were Expendable (Ford, 1945), Laura (Preminger, 1944), The Namesake (Nair, 2006)

Since my quotient of recently released movies has dropped off drastically post-progeny, here are five movies from 2007 that I especially enjoyed. Yes, that’s how far behind I am. But who’s complaining?

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(Check back here on January 1, 2010 for my favorite films of 2008!!)

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Domink, 2007)
Full disclosure: I was put off by the title and avoided this for a while. But once the film began, I was in. Dominik is going for something poetic and the beautiful images cause a number of people to make comparisons to Malick. I call all such comments bunk. Rather, it seems that the film stumbles in its narration, which was too intrusive, too focused on spelling out feelings and events, and in the process pulls the viewer away from the more visceral elements that have been built up by the visuals and the editing. That said, I really did like it. The film admirably plays with the notion of tragedy, prodding us to examine our own reactions to the events of James’ life, and Ford’s place in it.

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Away From Her (Polley, 2007)
I’ve liked Sarah Polley for some time—yes, I’m thinking of you, The Sweet Hereafter—even as she starred in movies that didn’t always utilize her gifts as an actress—yes, I’m thinking of you, Go. But even as a fan, I was blown away by the confidence and sensitivity in her feature film debut about an aging couple dealing with the wife’s Alzheimer’s disease. While the performances shine, it’s the writing and directing I found so invigorating—a willingness to avoid spelling out every little feeling, to have characters say just enough and leave the rest to expression, tone, and the like. Plus, the camera seems to have a voice of its own, through expressive framing, mise en scène, and tracking shots.

I’m Not There (Haynes, 2007)
This Dylan biopic seemed to leave people in one of three camps: loved it, hated it, or confused by it. Consider me in the loved it category. Once I had heard six different actors were portraying Dylan, I gave up all expectations of narrative coherence, instead opting to sit back, enjoy the music, and let the film make its impressions where it would. It’s better, I think, to conceive of this film like a poem—connections between scenes remain opaque, while the vision of Dylan becomes less a historical narrative and more like a piece of music, suggesting emotions and ideas but refusing to put them together into a simple or straightforward narrative.

Lars and the Real Girl (Gillespie, 2007)
The one that most moved me among these “new” films, Lars takes a ridiculous idea for a plot and creates something surprisingly gentle and touching. Gosling’s sensitive portrayal of the withdrawn Lars certainly contributes to that, but I most appreciated the extended reflection on the goodness of his community, both at church and in the wider world. Even as it strained credulity in the closing scenes, I didn’t care, because Lars does something few films these days even attempt: it portrays goodness and offers a vision of what it might actually look like in the world, how it might soothe the pains of modern life and offer something akin to resurrection for those life seems to have passed by.

Manufactured Landscapes (Baichwal, 2007)
I was taken in immediately, during the nearly ten-minute opening tracking shot through that colossal Chinese factory. Based on the photography of Edward Burtynsky, the film examines the effects of manufacturing on the geography of our world. Instead of limestone caves and snow-capped peaks, Burtynsky shoots the gaping remains of iron quarries and mountains of discarded computer chips in Chinese villages, leaving us to think about not only what the endless consumption of products does to the land and sea, but also its impact on the hungry and poor around the world.

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2007 in Review

2007 saw the onset of a new job, the purchase of our first home, the birth of our second child, and the completion of the first draft of a dissertation. Obstacles right and left, with nothing to do but appreciate the blessings and struggle through the results. Translation: 2007 offered its own difficulties and adjustments, but as such, ended up a year of significant growth personally. When it came to the movies though, the increasing limitations cramped my opportunities for viewing more than ever before.

The limitations are apparent not only in my viewing schedule, but also in the films themselves: barriers erected, barriers redirecting, barriers transgressed, and barriers overcome. Such limitations can be both negative obstacles that inhibit freedom or prevent engagement, and positive opportunities for change, growth, protection, or victory. For me then, both personally and cinematically, 2007 is the year of the limitation.

True to form, listing my favorite films of 2007 requires an immediate subtraction from the traditional “top ten”: Having only actually seen ten new films, something of the exclusive or unique nature of such a traditional list would be lost if I just listed all ten. So I’ve limited myself to five, each of which illustrate or present limitations in their own way.

The Lives of Others pictures the limits imposed on East German society before the wall came down, and the power of art to cross traditional bounds regardless of walls and guards.

Zodiac recognizes the limits of technology through a retelling of the investigation surrounding the Zodiac killings in San Francisco three decades ago. While the film defies narrative expectations, it cleverly presents a supposedly “connected” world of people frustrated in their investigative efforts by their inability to communicate.

Killer of Sheep, made in 1977 but released for the first time this year, takes place in South Central Los Angeles, where people live lives that have largely been cordoned off from the popular imagination. Stan, struggling to get by and provide for his family, finds poverty at every turn. Even still, Burnett finds the beauty amid the difficulties.

I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone, Tsai Ming-liang’s latest, follows three solitary figures through the urban environs of Kuala Lampur, struggling to connect, but with little idea of how to do it. Tsai’s dialogue is more limited than ever, which only serves to enhance the barriers between these people.

Offside, easily my favorite theatrical viewing experience of the year, places several women inside the qualifying soccer match against Bahrain in the summer of 2005. However, because Iranian law doesn’t allow women to view such events, the film offers what turns out to be a slyly ironic take on the state of the country in the midst of Iran’s great victory.

With my decreasing ability to take in films during their theatrical release, my favorite discoveries of the year encapsulate my year in film more than anything. The greater variety offered through rentals means that the choices are more personal and more likely to connect with my own sensibilities. Like my favorite films of this year, each of these contains its own comment on limitations—financial, spiritual, or societal; limitations related to knowledge, addiction, health or gender.

Danielson: A Family Movie chronicles the history and life of the indie band(s) led by Daniel Smith, who creates unique and strangely engaging music, mostly on a shoestring budget out of the small studio space in his basement.

Requiem offers an unsettling portrait of demon possession or madness, depending on one’s perspective. Schmid’s use of subtlety in his portrayal of the affected teen and the simple ways in which common relationships are expressed make this film a refreshing antidote to what would no doubt be an overwrought melodrama in a US film.

Monsieur Verdoux is often noted as Chaplin’s first failure from a box office perspective. Thankfully box office numbers fade into oblivion sixty years on, and we are left to assess the film on its merits. Its scathing critique of modern society doesn’t let up once in its 124 minutes.

F for Fake finds Orson Welles in fine form, creating a masterful reflection on truth, certainty, value, and illusion. The editing here is worth the price of admission, as Welles uses it to great effect in destabilizing the viewers understanding of specific circumstances. What really happened and who was fooled? Well, I’d need to see it again to be sure (or not).

Flowers of Shanghai takes place in several brothels in late 19th century China. Hou’s shots linger on his subjects, rarely emphasizing an individual in the midst of others. Instead, we are left with the full scene unfolding before us, left to decide which characters and actions are worth noting. Hou trusts his audience—I love this kind of filmmaking.

Mouchette finds Bresson meditating on the trials of a young teenage girl who lacks love, companionship, and hope. Mouchette’s story is tragic, but the empathy Bresson creates for other human beings remains unmatched.

The House is Black is Forugh Farrokhzad’s poetic chronicle of a leper colony in Iran. Only twenty minutes long, the film remains deeply affecting throughout, as its diseased subjects eat, pray, and play, their humanity shining out through the disfigurement of their broken bodies.

Le Notti Bianche portrays a lonely young dreamer and several encounters he has with a mysterious, troubled, and attractive woman on a bridge. Based on a short story by Dostoevsky (White Nights), Visconti’s film possesses a dreamy quality that only serves to heighten the unreality of the world despite the vibrancy of the man’s encounters.

Half Nelson tells the story of a drug-addicted history teacher in an urban school. It deconstructs the myth of the liberal white savior while creating compelling drama around a budding relationship between the teacher and one of his students, a twelve year-old African-American girl.

Ten. Kiarostami’s film consists of ten dialogues on a variety of issues: sex, marriage, and parenting, to name a few. Yet while Kiarostami keeps our vision limited to a dashboard camera pointed at the front seat of a woman’s car, his film allows us to cross Middle Eastern societal boundaries and hear of life through the eyes of Iranian women and children. Brilliant. Hands down, the best film I’ve seen this year.

Other discoveries I enjoyed: Ace in the Hole (1951), Big Animal (2000), Crimson Gold (2003), Ivan’s Childhood (1962), Limelight (1952), A Moment of Innocence (1996), Shut Up & Sing (2006), Stranger than Fiction (2006), Volver (2006)

2006 Favorites (Older Films)

It’s time for that end of the year wrap-up, which for me, usually comes at some point in late January. So getting it done now, has me right on schedule, if not a little early. I’ve always skewed late (i.e. not December 31) on this, largely because there were always a few extra films I wanted to see whose release dates were crammed into the last week of December. Now that I’m a parent and theater time is even more limited, I skew late because there are a few extra films I want to see that are already out on DVD.

Having said that, I suspect any future write-ups of the year gone by are going to tilt even more to the personal side as the far majority of my viewing tends to be of older films. I simply have less opportunities (and interest) in the heavily marketed “event movies” or even much of the Oscar bait thrown out at the end of the year. I find as I grow older I am less interested in “discovering” some new film and more apt to read weekly reviews, festival summaries, and write ups like these at the end of the year for ideas on how to fill out my viewing list.

In that spirit, this year’s list will be the older films I’ve encountered for the first time, accompanied by a list of new films that came out in 2006. The former is much more difficult in that it includes a much longer starting list. The latter is difficult in being able to find 10 films worthy of listing. As always, my rankings are based on what I most want to see again, and I’ve avoided an unranked list mostly because I enjoy seeing where things end up in relation to one another.

1. Brief Encounter (1945, dir. David Lean)

Yeah, I know. I’m kind of surprised too. But it’s a romance about an adulterous couple, you say? Well yes, but this film had such a powerful effect on me that its place on this list is without much question. When I think back to it, the first thing that always comes to mind is the completely disarming performance by Celia Johnson as the compromised wife. There’s a fragile beauty in her eyes that leaves her at once attractive, helpless, and guilt-ridden. Yet, even as she delves further into her adulterous fantasy, one continues to find hope in her guilt, leading to a stunning conclusion that, frankly, left me gasping for breath. It sure doesn’t hurt a film’s chances either when the director liberally employs some of the most exquisite piano music ever scored – Rachmaninov’s 2d piano concerto.

2. The Man Who Planted Trees (1987, dir. Frédéric Back)

If I’m honest, this is really the only film in competition with Lean’s fine work. A short animated film, The Man Who Planted Trees is a simple fable told with such quiet grace and poetry that it almost sneaks up on you. I say almost, because in spite of its quiet way, it quickly becomes apparent this film offers a picture of a man we would all do well to emulate. The story is simple: it’s about a single man living in a desolate valley who spends his days planting seeds, and the progress of that valley over time. Beyond that, the animation itself contributes to the overall feel of the film, beginning with fewer colors, slowly expanding the palette as the scope of the film expands. There’s a lightness and airiness to the beautiful animation that offers a nice contrast to the ethical and spiritual weight offered in the story itself.

3. Trial of Joan of Arc (1962, dir. Robert Bresson)


This short (61 minutes) feature follows the famous saint in her final days. Bresson typically finds the transcendent through close observation of the physical and finite. The same is true here, as his close focus on Joan, and especially her hands and feet, offer insights into bondage and freedom, life and death, guilt and innocence. Further, while the explicit content of the trial was most often theological, Bresson is careful to highlight the political stakes that were often driving the theological conclusions.

4. Nights of Cabiria (1957, dir. Frederico Fellini)

The star of this film, Giulietta Masina, has been a revelation for me this year. So expressive, but with a hard edge, and yet can still bring out a sensitivity and fragility that is just about heartbreaking. I chose this over Fellini’s earlier La Strada first and foremost because of its pitch perfect ending, a final shot etched into my memory. Beyond that though, Cabiria, a prostitute in Rome who somehow does well enough to get by without often working, is at the edge of a transformative moment in her life. The way Fellini ties in the romantic, financial, and religious elements that bring her toward this moment is so effortless, but also filled with engaging commentary on these elements.

5. Camera Buff (1979, dir. Krzysztof Kieslowski)

Kieslowski’s fictional account of a corporate salesman’s turn toward filmmaking is remarkably personal, astute in its observations of obsession, the dynamics of married life, and the beauty of simple, realistic filmmaking. The always interesting Jerzy Stuhr plays Filip, a young husband and father of a newborn who, having bought an 8mm camera to film his young daughters life, begins to turn the camera on other subjects. As the gaze of the camera leaves his family, Filip’s eye follows, a fact abundantly clear to his wife, who is effectively silenced by all the praise Filip garners for his films made in and around his company. A fascinating look at the nature of the filmmaker, Camera Buff reveals where the truth lies in filmmaking.

6. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962, dir. John Ford)

Ford’s gritty, dirty, and dark film that portrays the end of the old West, or at least the West as it moves on toward accommodating a more settled stage of life. Jimmy Stewart plays Ransom Stoddard, an old Senator who has returned to his roots in Shinbone for the funeral of his friend Tom Doniphon (John Wayne). Most of the film occurs in flashback, as Stoddard tells of his early days there, back when the town was run by a common (and often bloody) code of justice rather than lawyers and judges. It is one part nostalgia, another part lament, while Ford’s direction, pacing, and framing offer a complex experience of loss and the clash between old and new.

7. My Life to Live (1962, dir. Jean-Luc Godard)

Godard’s film follows a young, urban woman through twelve scenes as she moves from aspiring actress to full-fledged prostitute. Maybe that sounds just plain depressing, but with Godard’s energetic direction and the wonderful Anna Karina as Nana it is never anything short of mesmerizing to watch. Nana’s liveliness, vivacity, and naïveté create a character that is endlessly watchable, both for the passion with which she lives her life, but also out of concern for her less than ideal choices. She is a human being in the fullest sense, a wonder to behold.

8. Au Revoir Les Enfants (1987, dir. Louis Malle)

A meditation on a childhood spent in war, Malle brings us into the world of an elite Catholic boarding school in the country, where Parisian parents have sent their children to wait out the German occupation of Paris. Julien, being smarter than the other boys and desperately homesick for his mother, is lonely and ends up becoming intrigued by the new boy, Jean, who just happens to be a Jewish refugee the priests are hiding, a secret to all the boys. Thus begins a journey of discovery for Julien, whose curiosity allows him to know Jean better than most, yet whose innocence keeps him from understanding the implications of Jean’s religious affiliation.

9. Best of Youth (2005, dir. Marco Tullio Giordana)


This is a six-hour miniseries made for Italian television that follows the development, suffering, and growth of a single contemporary Italian family – particularly two brothers who are close as young men but diverge in young adulthood and struggle to relate as they get older. In doing so, director Giordana deftly weaves in scenes depicting recent Italian history, making this a kind of historical document that adds a real groundedness to the proceedings. With its wide cast of characters, its mix of comic and dramatic elements, and an often lyrical presentation, it is always interesting to watch.

10. Badlands (1973, dir. Terrence Malick)

This is Malick’s first film, with a young Martin Sheen (Kit) and even younger Sissy Spacek (Holly) traveling across the South Dakota terrain. Malick’s trademark narration, elliptical editing, and visual poetry all make appearances in the finest form. While their young love begins with all the rapture of a honeymoon, things take a turn for the worse for the couple as Kit begins his murdering spree. Holly in her innocence tags along as they evade the police, yet the genius here is her narration, which creates an interesting dissonance between her thoughts and what we see before us.

Honorable Mentions (in alphabetical order): All About My Mother, Babe: Pig in the City, The Bad Sleep Well, Cache, Chungking Express, Elevator to the Gallows, The Fallen Idol, Grizzly Man, The Lady From Shanghai, Los Olvidados, Mr. Arkadian, Nashville, La Notte, Pickpocket, Raise the Red Lantern, Sherlock Jr., Shoot the Piano Player, A Short Film About Love, The Squid and the Whale, To Live, The Wages of Fear, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, The World

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)