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

Au Revoir les Enfants (1987)

Louis Malle’s Au Revoir les Enfants follows the fate of two boys, one Jewish (Bonnet) and one not (Julien), at a secluded Catholic private school for the children of the rich. Malle begins his film on a train platform in Paris as Julien, a boy of twelve, says a painful goodbye to his mother. The simple scene belies its complexity, as it exhibits an intricacy that is evidence of a master in command of his craft.It is in the middle of WWII, and the boy feels the pain of separation acutely. If he isn’t actually crying, we know he wants to. Still feeling the longing of a child, yet needing to act grown up beyond his years, the tension within bubbles to the surface as Julien lashes out at his mother. We know he doesn’t hate her, in spite of his words. Yet as children are wont to do, he offers an extreme emotional reaction in lieu of expressing his true feelings.

Early in this scene, Julien’s mother says hello to some children passing her to board the train. The subtle irony of this statement, both in light of the film’s title and the fact that these boys are leaving to go somewhere further illustrate the isolation of Julien from his mother. He wants nothing more than to stay at home with her, yet she is happily greeting other children while he gets ready to leave.

Julien’s isolation is seen also in the disconnect between he and his older brother/fellow students on the platform. His brother playfully makes fun of him in the midst of this difficult separation and illustrates his own independence from his mother by smoking in front of her. Julien also expresses disdain for his fellow students, no doubt feeling the sting of his upcoming separation.

The complexity of Julien’s character is further compounded for us as his mother, in a poor attempt at comfort, wishes that she could dress as a boy and be with her son all the time he is away at school. Julien is at a significant moment in his life – being forced away from his mother, yet still a child desiring her embrace. When his mother kisses him goodbye on the forehead, he boards the train with the red lip print still visible. He is so lost in his anguish that he cares not for appearances.

Thus, in a simple goodbye scene that takes place on a non-descript train platform and lasts not longer than two and a half minutes, Malle has essentially established the depth of his main character, the one through whom we will experience the events and people in the film. He’s isolated, frustrated, angry, and sad. The union Malle exhibits between economy and complexity marks the entire film – simple scenes filled with details that enrich characterization, evoke the time and place, and subtly walk us into the loss of childhood that Julien experiences.