Monday, December 31, 2007

Underachievement Films of the Year

About nine months into the year, after enthusing yet again about a great film I had seen, a friend of mine accused me of being suspiciously different in my outlook on the quality of contemporary cinema, an outlook, which, I have to say is often pitched somewhere between bleak and mournful. She even joked that I was an impostor for the real Seanachie. I took this comment on board and myself wondered if I had lowered my criticial standards over the past year. Thankfully a number of true stinkers such as Woody Allen's latest film Cassandra's Dream, Tom diCillo's utterly inane Delirious and Todd Field's Little Children were on hand to provide a timely benchmark for awful cinema.

Looking back over the year now, I might even say that 2007 was an exceptional, even vintage, year for cinema. Or it certainly was if you were lucky enough to live in Paris. Nobody has it better for movies than Parisian cinemagoers, and many of the better films I saw this year are likely to have only the briefest and most limited of releases in other countries, if, that is, they get released at all. Some will not get releases in the English-speaking world until 2008, such as Cristian Mungiu's Palme d'Or winner 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days and Gus Van Sant's Paranoid Park while conversely there were others I didn't get to see as they have not arrived in France yet. This is one explanation for the absence of The Darjeeling Limited, No Country for Old Men and Lenny Abrahamson's Garage from the list below.

What was most remarkable about the films of the past year was the consistent spread of fine cinema being produced by a number of countries that have been showing much promise over the past few years. Argentina has had a thriving industry since, paradoxically, the collapse of its economy, producing some great popular cinema as well as more austere auteur films. Israel continues to turn out a remarkable sequence of films, that provide a fascinating portrait of a society by turns paranoid, aggressive and anguished. Though most Israeli filmmakers are firmly liberal, their films are nonetheless pitted with troublesome lacunae about their relationship with the Palestinians, which gives the exhilarating impression of a national cinema that is reactive to everyday political and social stimuli. It is ironic that the cinema it most closely resembles in this respect is Iran's of five to ten years ago, which unfortunately, has diminished in prolificness and daring since the rise to power of Mohammed Ahmedinejad. German cinema had another great year, producing one the greatest foreign-film Oscar winners in living memory The Lives of Others, and a slew of fine dramas from a golden generation of young directors, all of them in their late twenties and early thirties. That the biggest country in Europe currently has such strong talent after years of mediocre output is good for cinema everywhere.

The greatest sensation of the past two years though has been Romania, having garnered three top awards at Cannes, and after last year's Underachievement film of the year The Death of Mr Lazarescu there were further delights in Corneliu Porumboiu's 12:08 East of Bucharest and 4 Years, 3 Months & 2 Days and California Dreamin', the posthumous comedy by Cristian Nemescu. Though few of the films have been commercial successes back in Romania, the confluence of talent is, once again, significant and many of the films share the same brilliant character actors such as Ion Sapdaru and Teo Corban, both of whom are are worth the price of the ticket alone. Incidentally, Ioan Fiscuteanu, the actor who played the ailing Mr Lazarescu, passed away a few weeks ago from cancer (thanks to Tia for that information), as did, indeed, Ulrich Mühe, the star of The Lives of Others.

English-language cinema, which had been largely unremarkable of late, made a comeback this year with even directors I have previously found intolerable, such as David Fincher and Paul Haggis, offering films that were not so bad at all. The music biopic, which had been suffering badly following the turgidly similar Ray and I Walk the Line, received vital injections of life from Anton Corbijn's portrayal of Ian Curtis Control and Todd Haynes' ingenious Bob Dylan fresco I'm Not There. David Cronenberg made yet another strong case for his being the greatest filmmaker of his generation with the grisly and jarring Eastern Promises, which featured the Russian Mafia, as did James Gray's We Own the Night, a much less pretentious and far superior variation on Scorsese's The Departed. Old reliables David Lynch and Gus Van Sant also produced fine films. Shane Meadows excelled even himself with This is England and Kevin McDonald's The Last King of Scotland was a rare and welcome examination of Africa that was devoid of either sentimentalism or sublimated paternalistic racism. Add to these a number of excellent documentaries from all round the world and memorable films from mainstays of Asian cinema such as Jia Zhang-Ke, Tsai Ming-Liang and Apichatpong Weerasethakul and it was a year of superb films, many of which I will be watching a second time soon.

10. Persepolis - Marjane Satrapi, Vincent Paronnaud (France/USA)

Satrapi's autobiographical comic book was a worldwide bestseller and her adaptation, co-directed with fellow bande dessinateur Vincent Paronnaud, elaborates on the book's distinctive visual style and its nightmare vision of a country's revolution being hijacked by religious fanatics. By turns hilarious and horrific, it is one of the greatest comic book adaptations ever and the best French film of the past year.

View Persepolis trailer

9. Still Life - Jia Zhang-Ke (China)

Now that Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige have given themselves over to the impasse of heritage cinema and martial arts movies, Jia is now the foremost Chinese director, tackling contemporary subjects and risking the wrath of the Communist Party with each new film. Still Life follows a woman searching for her long-lost husband in a city that is in the course of being dismantled by its inhabitants before being engulfed by water to make way for the Three Gorges Dam. Hauntingly beautiful, it makes excellent use of sound and a bleached-out visual aesthetic that reinforces the ghostly nature of the passing of history and the way it affects ordinary people. A good companion piece is Manufactured Landscapes, Jennifer Baichwal's documentary on Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky, whose work covers the same ground.

View Still Life trailer

8. pingpong - Mathias Luthardt (Germany)

Developed from Luthardt's film-school graduation piece, pingpong is one of the many great domestic dramas produced by a brilliant young generation of German directors. A classic cuckoo-in-the-nest tale, in the vein of Pasolini's Theorem and Polanski's Knife in the Water, it tells the tale of a feckless teen who bunks up with his rich cousins for the duration of the summer holidays, and who quickly becomes obsessed with his aunt-in-law. A chilly, brilliantly-shot and brilliantly-edited tale of unwelcome intimacy and spite.

Watch pingpong trailer

7. This is England - Shane Meadows (UK)

Seanachie has long been a fan of the Nottingham autodidact filmmaker Shane Meadows and this year Meadows produced his finest film yet, the semi-autobiographical tale of a bullied 12-year-old boy who falls in with a band of racist skinheads in 1982 Scarborough. The opening credit sequence is an amusing montage of 80s nostalgia but thereafter film is hard-headed and bleak, with superb improvised performances by a cast of Meadows regulars and particularly the dogged young newcomer Thomas Thurgoode. A devastatingly simple portrait of how racism takes hold of ordinary people.

View This is England trailer

6.We Feed the World - Erwin Wagenhofer (Austria)/Our Daily Bread - Nikolaus Geyrhalter (Austria)

These two Austrian documentaries on the food industry were independently produced and are markedly different in style and approach but both provide mesmerising insights into the methods and industrial-scale rationalisations that contribute to the production of cheap food for mainly Western consumers. Wagenhofer's film is the more polemical, while Geyrhalter takes a more silently impassive look at the production process. Both however are wonderfully rich documents that give a touching prominence to the repetitions and the ardour of manual labour.

View We Feed the World trailer
View Our Daily Bread trailer

5. Eastern Promises - David Cronenberg (UK/Canada)

Cronenberg went off the boil a bit in the 1990s (though without ever really descending into irrelevance in the way that his contemporaries Scorsese, de Palma and Coppola did), and his resurgence over the past few years has been one of the most gratifying things in contemporary cinema. Eastern Promises is, like his previous two films Spider and A History of Violence, a hyper-realist jaunt through a range of subjects such as guilt, violence, broken trust and the audience's capacity to be outraged or shocked by the most unexpected things in a film. Shot and styled like a piece of banal direct-to-video fodder, the film is deceptively simple, masking an ingenious network of provocations that question our attitudes to the very film itself. And, best of all, it is damn scary.

View Eastern Promises trailer

4. Control - Anton Corbijn (UK)

Photographer to the stars Corbijn's first feature is a moving portrait of one of his earlier collaborators Ian Curtis. While many complained of the film not focussing enough on Joy Division and their music, Control excelled for this very reason, fleshing Curtis out (thanks to Sam Riley's fine performance) and putting his epilepsy and his legendary demise in a human context. As you would expect from such an accomplished photographer, it looks great and it's also unexpectedly funny.

View Control trailer

3. Silent Light - Carlos Reygadas (Mexico/France)

Reygadas' first two films, Japón and Batalla en el ciélo were arresting and often shamelessly provocative examinations of the mundane existential struggles of ordinary people in testing situations. For this story of infidelity and forgiveness among German-speaking Mennonite farmers in Chiahuahua, Reygadas once again uses non-professional actors though the tone and the methods are more restrained than in the previous two films. Lovingly rendered landscapes and a punctilious attention to sound detail make the two-and-a-half-hour film one of the most enthralling of the year. While many people will hate it, Reygadas has no problem with that; he has stated in interviews that he has no interest in entertaining his audience. Demanding his films might be but the pay-off rewards the attentiveness.

View Silent Light trailer

2. Climates - Nuri Bilge Ceylan (Turkey)

Following on his hugely impressive second feature Uzak, which was a prizewinner at Cannes four years ago, Turkish director Ceylan cast himself and his wife (along with his own parents) in this melancholy domestic drama charting the break-up of a relationship between a sullen architectural lecturer and his younger girlfriend. Like Uzak, Climates is beautifully paced and each frame is rich with the tautness of minor human dramas. What makes it all the more striking is the unsympathetic nature of Ceylan's own character, the greatest directorial self-abasement since Fassbinder in Fox and his Friends.

View Climates trailer

1. 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days - Cristian Mungiu (Romania)

My film of the year last year was Cristi Puiu astounding social drama The Death of Mr Lazarescu in which a dying alcoholic is shunted from one Bucharest hospital to another. The consolidation of Romanian cinema as one of the world's most impressive came this year with the awarding of the Palme d'Or at Cannes to Cristian Mungiu's drama 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days which tells the harrowing account of an illegal abortion in the final years of the Ceausescu regime. The film is a finely-calibrated slice of life, shimmering with the squalid discomfort of the Communist-era gloom, brilliantly acted and difficult to sit through. If the clutch of Romanian films that have their way west in recent years is any indicator, the country is, despite its many social and political problems, a formidable repository of stories that will produce many more in years to come.

View 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days trailer

Seanachie also liked:

Naissance des pieuvres - Céline Sciamma (France)

Armin - Ognjen Svilicic (Bosnia & Herzegovina)

Joe Strummer: the Future is Written - Julien Temple (UK/Ireland)

The Bubble - Eytan Fox (Israel)

Kings of the World - Valérie Mitteaux, Anna Pitoun, Rémi Rozié France)

Deathproof - Quentin Tarantino (USA)

El Camino de San Diego - Carlos Sorín (Argentina)

I Don't Want to Sleep Alone - Tsai Ming-Liang (Malaysia/Taiwan)

Zodiac - David Fincher (USA)

12:08 East of Bucharest - Corneliu Porumboiu (Romania)

Tehilim - Raphaël Nadjari (Israel/USA/France)

Paranoid Park - Gus Van Sant (USA/France)

INLAND EMPIRE - David Lynch (USA/France)

Le Scaphandre et le papillon - Julian Schnabel (France/USA)

Très bien, merci - Emmanuel Cuau (France)

Jesus Camp - Heidi Ewing, Rachel Grady (USA)

El Custodio - Rodrigo Moreno (Argentina)

Letters from Iwo-Jima - Clint Eastwood (USA/Japan)

The Boss of it All - Lars Von Trier (Denmark)

Notes on a Scandal - Richard Eyre (UK)

The Last King of Scotland - Kevin McDonald (UK/USA)

The Lives of Others - Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck (Germany)

Into Great Silence - Philip Gröning (Germany)

August Days - Marc Recha (Spain/Catalonia)

I'm Not There - Todd Haynes (USA)

Nue proprieté - Joachim Lafosse (Belgium)

The Edge of Heaven - Fatih Akin (Germany/Turkey)

Les chansons d'amour - Christophe Honoré (France)

Hounds - Ann-Kristin Reyels (Germany)

The Band's Visit - Eran Kolirin (Israel/Egypt)

American Gangster - Ridley Scott (USA)

We Own the Night - James Gray (USA)

Manufactured Landscapes - Jennifer Baichwal (Canada)

The Assassination of Jessie James by the Coward Robert Ford - Andrew Dominik (USA)

The Forest of Mongari - Naomi Kawase (Japan)

The Old Garden - Im Sang-soo (South Korea)

Le Leon - Santiago Otheguy (Argentina)

Jellyfish - Etgar Keret, Shira Geffen (Israel)

Retour en Normandie - Nicolas Philibert (France)

Secret Sunshine - Lee Chang-dong (South Korea)

Syndromes & a Century - Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Thailand)

Si le vent soulève les sables - Marion Hänsel (Belgium/France)

We, the Living - Roy Andersson (Sweden)

Notes on a Scandal - Richard Eyre (UK)

and the stinkers:

Little Children - Todd Field (USA)

Cassandra's Dream - Woody Allen (USA)

Youth Without Youth - Francis Ford Coppola (USA/Romania)

99F - Jan Kounen (France)

Breaking and Entering - Anthony Minghella (UK/USA)

A Very British Gangster - Dónal MacIntyre (UK/Ireland)

Delirious - Tom diCillo (USA)

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

A Brief Return for Christmas

Since putting this blog on hold a few months ago, I've had the odd urge to start things up again and, strange to say, I've actually missed blogging. That said I don't regret putting it aside, for the simple reason that it had become that most troublesome of things, a distraction and an obligation, and sad to say, the micro-blogging possibilities afforded by Facebook have proven to be a much easier and quicker way of drawing people's attention to the recherché and bizarre elements of Web 2.0 . The traffic to the site has not abated, though I imagine those that used to read it regularly no longer bother, and Underachievement's ability to fulfil the most arcane of Google searches should assure it of a healthy rate of transient readership for some time to come.

This return is but a brief one, to wish all a Happy Christmas and also to review the year, in a rather half-arsed way. There will be one or two more posts over the Christmas and then it will be back to normality for the New Year, though that's not to say that I won't be returning again at some point later on when the mood takes me. Have a Merry Christmas all, and thank you for reading over the past eighteen months.