Monday, January 08, 2007

Underachievement Films of the Year

A bit late on this one; it was one of those posts that I had intended doing over the Christmas but I was stymied by the parlous state of Irish telecommunications and the parsimony of wi-fi suppliers in Dublin. But here it is late, and the lateness was a boon of some sort as I managed to see Paul Verhoeven's Black Book, his best film in years and a worthy entry in the top 1o. The year overall was not bad, though much of the better stuff I saw was from Europe and Asia. Big disappointments came in the shape of Terrence Malick's The New World, which was a brooding, navel-gazing piece of fluff and Ken Loach's The Wind That Shakes the Barley, which, despite winning the Palme d'Or and doing great box-office in Ireland and France, was too much a dull retread of Land and Freedom for my tastes. Martin Scorsese, according to the critics, steamrolled back to form with The Departed; more discerning viewers have found it to be preposterously overrated but, no doubt a shoo-in for the Oscars. I have yet to see some of the year's more interesting films, such as Richard Linklater's brace of A Scanner Darkly and Fast Food Nation, Christopher Nolan's The Prestige and Alphonso Cuaron's Children of Men. I look forward to seeing them soon. And there's Pan's Labyrinth too, though given my previous dislike of Guillermo del Toro's work I don't expect to be too bowled over. But then again, I thought the same of del Toro's compatriot Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu until I was pleasantly surprised by his brilliantly-mounted Babel. There were bad films along the way, quite a few (though I managed to avoid most of the more obviously bad ones), hang your heads in shame Lord of War, Transamerica, Walk the Line and, above all, Marie Antoinette, the year's biggest royal mess, in itself the greatest argument furnished in favour of the French revolution these past few years.

Anyway here goes, starting at 10.

10. Video for 'Here It Goes Again' (OK Go/Trish Sie)

It might seem a bit unorthodox to have a film that is just over three minutes long, and which has never been near a cinema in here but the by now celebrated choreographed video, shot in one take of the band strutting their stuff on eight treadmills is pure cinematic genius, throwaway and painstakingly crafted at the same time. It is also possessed of more wit and visual panache than the vast majority of theatrical releases anywhere in the world last year. It's even hard to begrudge the band the exposure they have generated for their so-so Indie rock. Charming stuff.

9. Oxhide (Jiayin Liu)

I don't expect that many people will rush out to watch this, a two-hour docudrama shot on low-resolution DV, entirely in a tanner's workshop in Beijing, in long static takes, using the director's family (including herself) as cast. It looks gloopy green and the camera never moves once but it is completely entrancing. The director Liu is only 25 and she did practically everything on this film in an astounding piece of DIY filmmaking; as ever with prodigies of the sort, it has an incredible maturity and the performances she draws out of her cranky family's quotidian life are marvellous. Despite the best efforts of the Chinese government to marshall cinematic output there is still good stuff being made and the freshness of the work never lets up.

8. Capote (Bennett Miller)

Biopics out of Hollywood are usually godawful, full of pious platitudes about journeys through harrowing adversity and the horrors overcome by people with the right can-do spirit. Bennett Miller's portrayal of Truman Capote's descent into terminal depression while writing In Cold Blood is a marvel however, beautifully shot and edited, perfectly scripted and a fine performance, just on the right side of mannered, by one of the finest American actors alive, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, who deservedly picked up an Oscar for this. Mercifully a literary film that is neither vulgarly inane nor tweedy.

7. Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait (Douglas Gordon & Philippe Parrano)

The prospect of a documentary filmed in real-time on one of the greatest footballers ever by two video artists renowned for their endurance-testing installations was not instantly appealing and, when I saw this in Paris just before the World Cup, half the audience walked out, probably a mix of arty types and football fans expecting something different. But Gordon and Parrano's film of Zidane playing for Real Madrid in a 2-1 win over Villareal in April 2005 is riveting stuff for the insight it gives both into the work of a modern footballer and the movements of the human anatomy. Sixteen cameras were trained on Zidane for the duration of the game, and the result is intriguing and boring in turns but one of the few great art/film crossovers. Zidane's surprisingly gnomic pronouncements about the game are interlaced with a soundtrack by Mogwai, and there is even drama, prophetic of the great man's eventual exit from the game: he gets sent off in the last minute after a mass brawl.

6. Black Book (Paul Verhoeven)

After years of making brash thrillers in Hollywood that were always too clever for their own good and built of ambitions far exceeding their execution, Verhoeven returned to his native Holland where he made some of his greatest films in the seventies and early eighties. Black Book is a virtuoso old-fashioned thriller, set during the Nazi occupation of Holland and based on a true story, about a young Jewish woman named Rachael Stein who joins the Resistance in The Hague and goes undercover to seduce the local SS Captain. The film is a masterpiece of detail - cosmetic, historical and political - and it has a splendid twist about half and hour from the end that nobody will see coming. Best of all though, it is a refreshingly unsentimental and clear-headed drama about both the Holocaust and the local Resistance to Nazism.

5. Close to Home (Vardit Bilu & Dalia Hagar)

Two Israeli girls doing their national service patrolling West Jerusalem, hassling Arabs at random, and doing their utmost to shirk their duties, all the while maintaining a breezy indifference to the war on their doorstep. A cool examination of the demeaning nature of Israeli checkpoints that also manages to be funny and touchingly human. The latest in a line of great Israeli films.

4. Guernsey (Nanouk Leopold)

Another Dutch film, this time about a young mother who witnesses the suicide of a colleague while working as an engineer in Egypt and then tells nobody about it, allowing her marriage and her relationship with her widowed father and her desperately embittered sister unravel almost as an existential experiment. Leopold touches all the right buttons in the Antonioni fashion but her film has a bracing individuality and an almost-Protestant rigidity of economy in its editing and mise en scène. There is not a shot wasted and as well as featuring a great, haunting performance as the wife by Maria Kraakman, it has a cast of some of the finest buildings seen on film in many a year.

3. To Get to Heaven First You Have to Die (Jamshed Usmonov)

The world is not overrun with films from Tajikistan but Jamshed Usmonov has managed to carve out an international reputation with his understated, grimly comic cinema. Here he follows up the acclaimed The Angel on the Right with the tale of a teenage husband unable to consummate his marriage but, who, it appears is not any the less horny for all that. He takes a trip to the capital Dushanbe, tries his hand at following the city women around, with little success only to fall in with a small-time hood, who inveigles him into a dodgy heist. The film is one gripping episode after another, all imbued with a wonderful dramatic ambiguity, bestowed as much by the passivity of the actors as by Usmonov's clockwork-precise direction. And, like all the films in this list, brilliantly paced.

2. Requiem (Hans-Christian Schmid)

Hans-Christian Schmid's harrowing account of the exorcism of a young German woman in the 1970s is both a masterful piece of kinetic cinema and an angry, if even-handed examination of faith and madness. The young woman, played by the amazing Sandra Hüller, is doomed from the start, as her epilepsy cuts her off from society and hampers her studies and her efforts to live an ordinary life. Her obsession with Catherine of Siena does not help, leading her to believe her illness is a messianic affliction thrust upon her by God. A perfect counterpart to Breaking the Waves and arguably more moving, Requiem is proof of the current rude health of German cinema.

1. The Death of Mr Lazarescu (Christu Puiu)

I don't know what has suddenly got into Romanian cinema but all of a sudden it is a hot ticket internationally, after years of obscurity. This year there was Catalin Mitulescu's How I Celebrated the End of the World about the fall of Ceaucescu, and there is the forthcoming 12:08 East 0f Bucharest by Corneliu Porumboiu, winner of the Caméra d'Or at Cannes last year. The previous year at Cannes Christu Puiu took the Un Certain Regard sidebar award for this brilliant comic drama about an ailing sexagenarian alcoholic's passage from one Bucharest hospital to another one autumn night. The self-confessed hypochondriac Puiu used his experiences in the city's hospitals to create this drama in which the splendidly-named Dante Lazarescu undergoes a nightmarish journey, entirely beyond his control as he lies semi-conscious on a stretcher, aided only by a sympathetic brow-beaten female paramedic. The state of the Romanian health service is abysmal and Lazarescu is successively misdiagnosed, rediagnosed and at one point turned away by a megalomaniacal doctor intent on punishing him for his drinking. Mr Lazarescu is redolent of the 'little man' in many a Central European novel and even while prostrate for much of the film he is a beguiling presence. The final, protracted scene where his dead body is washed and dressed is almost unbearably moving. Puiu intends this to be the first of a sequence of six films, inspired by Éric Rohmer's Moral Tales; somebody ought to keep the chequebook open indefinitely for him if this stunning film is anything to go by.

Seanachie also liked:

  • Odete (João Pedro Rodrigues)
  • Flandres (Bruno Dumont)
  • Indigènes (Rachid Bouchareb)
  • Bamako (Abderrahmane Sissako)
  • Munich (Steven Spielberg)
  • Dans Paris (Christophe Honoré)
  • The Sun (Aleksandr Sokurov)
  • A Cock and Bull Story (Michael Winterbottom)
  • A Prairie Home Companion (Robert Altman)
  • Sangre (Amat Escalante)
  • L'Ivresse du pouvoir (Claude Chabrol)
  • Brokeback Mountain (Ang Lee)
  • Shortbus (John Cameron Mitchell)
  • Lights in the Dusk (Aki Kaurismäki)
  • Shanghai Dreams (Xiaoshuai Wang)
  • Babel (Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu)
  • Pavee Lackeen (Perry Ogden)
  • Offside (Jafar Panahi)
  • Lucy (Henning Winckler)
  • La Pressentiment (Jean-Pierre Darroussin)
  • Libero (Kim Rossi-Stuart)
  • Volver (Pedro Almodóvar)
  • Pork and Milk (Valérie Mréjen)
  • Taxidermy (György Palfi)
  • Good Night and Good Luck (George Clooney)
  • How I Celebrated the End of the World (Catalin Mitulescu)