Monday, December 22, 2008

Underachievement Films of the Year

Another year at the movies and another good one. Too often we hear jeremiads about the decline of cinema and the lack of good films out there (of course, such gripes are usually based on a diet of English-language cinema, which is far from being the world’s most interesting at the best of times). But this year, like last, showed that there are talented filmmakers from the whole world over forging visions that go beyond mere careerism or empty derivativeness. Another heartening thing is many of them are young and can expect to have long careers ahead of them.

Of course I have to admit that, living in Paris, I am more privileged than most when it comes to the choice of cinema on offer but with the internet the possibility of films accessing wider markets is considerable and the films I have listed all deserve to be seen by people any where in the world. My list, of a top ten listed in order, and a few dozen more listed in no particular order, is naturally a subjective one and in the top ten in particular there are a number of recurring themes and subjects, such as crime, war, urbanism, immigration and class politics. And many of the better films of the year seem to be pitched precariously between fiction and documentary reality, something I personally think gives cinema the frisson that no other art form can really provide. There are also films there for pure enjoyment, such as The Dark Knight, the best of the Batmans so far, the hilarious Tropic Thunder and Jean-Christophe Richet’s exhilarating two-film biopic of legendary French bank robber Jacques Mesrine.

The fact I live in Paris means that some of you will be surprised by some inclusions; there will be films that will have played elsewhere before this year and there will be many others that will have yet to come to a cinema near you. The basic rule for inclusion is a cinema release, no matter how small, in France in 2008 though I have bent the rule on one occasion, of which more later.

There were no new revelations of national cinemas though Brillante Mendoza’s two fine films Foster Child and Serbis seem to herald an emergence of Philippine cinema, while Eric Khoo once again put Singapore on the map with My Magic. France had an annus mirabilis, with a Palme d’Or win, two Oscars for La Môme (or La vie en rose as you might know it by), a domestic box-office record for the slight but likeable Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis and a range of fine films, of a variety unseen since the 1960s. Germany continues to make brilliant social dramas, as does Argentina, while Israel and Portugal are still producing strong films. Italy, that titan of post-war cinema, has been stuck in an impasse of mediocre, middle-brow films for a few decades now but there are promising signs. Two Cannes favourites, Matteo Garrone’s Gomorrah and the forthcoming Il Divo by Paolo Sorrentino have a vitality that has been missing from the Peninsula’s once great cinema for a long time. American cinema had a better than usual year too with a couple of decent films in for the Oscars, Oliver Stone’s biopic of Bush, his best film in over a decade, and James Gray’s stunning Two Lovers. While the rot in Hollywood is probably too deep set for it to ever become a consistent producer of great cinema again there should remain pockets of excellence.

As the financial crisis grips the world, one might be forgiven for thinking that a big casualty will be cinema, particularly films that don’t give a very great return on their investment. It’s hardly the world’s most pressing problem but a downturn in production at a time of such great inventiveness would be a shame. In any case there’s a backlog of plenty of good films if you find yourself having nothing left to watch. Enjoy whatever you choose off the list and apologies in advance for the lack of subtitles on some of the trailers and clips, and have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

1. La Graine et le mulet (Adbelketif Kechiche - France)
Released just before Christmas in France last year, Adbelketif Kechiche's La graine et le mulet was an important breakthrough for French and European cinema. Kechiche hasn't exactly come from nowhere - his previous film L'Esquive won best picture at the Césars three years ago - but the jolt felt by this marvellously ambitious and inventive feature was such that you had a sense of seeing cinema entirely anew.

Frank O'Connor once said in an essay on the short story that a good story was comparable to the effect of seeing a circus strongman bend a barbell; you don't see how it happens, you don't understand how it happens but you accept that it does. The effect of La graine et le mulet is similar. Kechiche started off as an actor in the films of André Techiné and he has inherited his mentor's astutely deft handling of ensembles and his clear-eyed humanism. The film tells the tale of Sliman, a Maghrebin sexagenarian living in Sète in the south of France, who after being laid off his job renovating boats in the town's harbour, decides to do one up himself and open a couscous restaurant on it. So far so banal, this hoary old tale is given extra pertinence for the fact that its protagonist is so firmly outside the French system that simple scenes such as visiting the bank and the local authorities are invested with unbearable tension and discomfort. Sliman is assisted by Rym the daughter of his common-law partner, a resourceful young woman, who works the system, herself half in the dark as to its labyrinthine intricacies.

There is also Sliman's family, from whom he is not estranged, despite having left his wife, and who each have their own marital problems, and Sliman suffers from high-blood pressure, which his fondness for chocking four sugars into his coffee doesn't help. Sliman's efforts to open the restaurant hinge on a gamble; he plans a one-off gourmet night, which he hopes will be a success and convince investors and bureaucrats of the soundness of his business capabilities.

Everything about the film ought to work against it; Kechiche uses non-professional actors and improvises heavily, he shoots long takes and lingers on small dramatic details. And the simplicity of the plot would be hard to get past most producers in this day and age. But Kechiche pulls it all off, mainly because he understands so well how cinema works, how much it is a fusion of the kinetics of human drama and the strange fabric of familiar everyday life. The film's magic is a fine balancing act between sociological observation of an immigrant community and dramatic exploration of a group that fleshes the characters out as the film develops.

The film's resounding success in France, where it did very well at the box office for a low-budget film without any stars, and also won Kechiche another brace of Césars, was even more remarkable. It also introduced Hafsia Herzi, a 22-year-old law student from Marseille, in the role of Rym. She herself won a César for best female newcomer and is likely to become a star, having stolen the show with a belly dance (which she put on 6 kilos to perform) that marks the film's dizzying climax. Internationally its success was not so great, hampered by a lack of big names and the awful title 'Couscous' but it will be a film that will last. Kechiche, along with Rabah Ameur-Zaïche and Karim Dridi, is part of a fine generation of French-Arab filmmakers who tell the stories of an oft-ignored and maligned community. But what marks these films out is their lucidity, their universalism and their clear lack of bitterness. If French society might be a long way from its Obama moment, its cinema is getting there.

Trailer for La graine et le mulet:

2.Waltz with Bashir (Ari Folman – Israel)
Folman’s dazzlingly innovatively animated documentary was most people’s favourite to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes this year and though the eventual winner, Laurent Cantet’s Entre les murs, was a fine film, Waltz with Bashir was probably the best in competition. Folman builds on his own experiences of serving as a conscript in the Israeli Defence Force in the invasion of Lebanon in 1982. Unlike some of his former comrades he cannot remember anything from the time so he interviews others, fellow soldiers, military commanders and journalists to piece the personal history together.

The film is a harrowing, yet matter-of-fact exploration of the war that veers from hallucinogenic phantasmagoria to moments of keen psychological observation. Folman’s blocking out of his memories is undoubtedly linked to the guilt of the Israelis guiding the Christian Phalangist militias to the refugee camp of Sabra and Chatila, where they massacred thousands of Palestinian civilians. The film closes with real footage of the slain bodies, which provides an uncomfortable jolt after the stylised animation of the previous hour and a half. As Israeli cinema continues through a period of unprecedented creativity, Folman’s film will serve as a great introduction to the country’s films. It also stands, along with the majestic documentary work of Avi Mograbi, as testimony to the troubled conscience of a country that is both infused with an extreme self-righteousness and so often is subject to a similar righteousness on the part of its critics.

Trailer for Waltz with Bashir:

3.Two Lovers (James Gray – USA)
After being underwhelmed by Gray’s first two features, Little Odessa and The Yards, despite signs of promise in both, I never expected much from the New York filmmaker. But last year’s cop family drama We Own the Night was one of the best films of the year and a refreshingly intelligent and unpretentious answer to Scorsese’s preposterously overrated The Departed. Gray is, you could say, the true heir to the great Scorsese of old that we have seen so little of over the past twenty years. All his films have been set in Brighton Beach in Brooklyn and are steeped in the atmosphere of the down-at-heel neighbourhood. Gray also reminds you of many of the finer forensic observers in the history of cinema, the Bergmans, the Rossellinis, the Ozus.

Two Lovers is a departure from the crime films of Gray’s previous work, being a simple yet psychologically sophisticated love story involving a young man with a troubled past. Joaquin Phoenix is superb as Leonard Kraditor, jilted for his medical history and who struggles to rehabilitate himself having moved back into his parents. His parents encourage him to start a relationship with Sandra, the daughter of another Jewish businessman, and she is all game. But the irrational call of love incites him to look elsewhere, towards Michelle, the glamorous blonde who has moved in upstairs. She finds him charming, indulges him but is ultimately uninterested. It’s a banal tale of unrequited infatuation that will be familiar to everyone, but Gray films it with the same tautness as he did his tales of hoodlums and hard-nosed cops. It is one of the most psychologically plausible love stories ever to have been put to film and Phoenix’s performance is such that you hope his current retirement from acting will be only temporary.

Trailer for Two Lovers:

4.Gomorrah (Matteo Garrone – Italy)
The young Italian writer Roberto Saviano was already in hiding before the release of this film version of his best-selling non-fiction book but the film’s success can hardly have helped his security situation. The film examines the Comorra, the Neapolitan mafia, and its tentacular reach into all sectors of Italian business and society. The film departs from the book by dispensing with the narrative voice, which was Saviano himself, who occupied a recklessly central role in his tale. What we are left with are six distinct tales told in a sober, dispassionate manner, similar to Alan Clarke’s Elephant or Gus Van Sant’s of the same name. Tim Parks has complained that the film lacks an oppositional force, a crusader that might represent resistance to the thuggery of the Naples mob. But this misses the point of the film, which is to resurrect the mob film from the relativistic morass and the dubious glamour it has been mired in for near on thirty years now. It is significant that the two young numskulls that try to muscle their way onto the turf of much more formidable men should be beholden to Brian de Palma’s Scarface. But Gomorrah has little truck with the mythologizing of that film – its gangsters are brutal thugs that bully their way around any situation, fascists in shellsuits.

The film is bleak in that it declines to offer a way out for anyone, the only characters that manage to opt out do so at the expense of their career. But it’s a timely film for its frankness in tackling the canker of organised crime from a left-wing point of view without making facile, shopworn observations about how it’s simply another extension of mainstream capitalism. The Comorra is deeply embedded in mainstream capital but the film makes no attempt to exonerate the organisation because of its unorthodox status.

Trailer for Gomorrah:

5.Night and Day (Hong Sang-Soo – South Korea/France)
I’ve been a fan of Hong’s unassuming intimiste dramas for a few years but Night and Day took me by surprise. Going to Paris to make a film has by now become almost an obligation for Asia’s top directors and Hong follows the lead of Tsai Ming-Liang, Nobuhiro Suwa and Hou Hsiao-Hsien with this tale of a Korean artist, Kim Sung-nam, who flees to France having been ratted out to the police by an American backpacker for sharing a joint. That starting point is representative of the film as a whole, which is a succession of brilliantly filmed episodes, most of which could themselves pass as self-contained stories. Kim loafs about Paris in the cocoon of its tiny Korean immigrant community, meets a former girlfriend by accident, has a falling-out with a North Korean over an unguarded comment about Kim Jong-Il, develops an ill-advised infatuation for a young, narcissistic art student and pines for his wife back home. The film’s tagline is ‘everything is as it seems’, which puts it fairly well. Not only a fine film in its own right but also one of the few that offers a foreign perspective on Paris without falling into clichéd and banal observations.

Trailer for Night and Day:

6.En construcción/Dans la ville de Sylvia (José Luis Guerín – Spain/France)
My own big discovery of the year, and I can’t believe I hadn’t heard of Guerín before now. I have to admit I’m cheating a bit by putting En construcción here as it was made in 2001, but as it was released simultaneously with the only slightly less brilliant Dans la ville de Sylvia, I feel entitled to bend the rules. The earlier film is half-documentary, half-film essay about the demolition of a building in the Barrio Chino, Barcelona’s old red-light district that was built in 1900 and is to meet its end in the dying months of the century. The film observes unobtrusively the inhabitants of the old quarter now being moved out as the area faces gentrification, the North African workers building the replacement apartment block and Guerín even had the boon of the workers discovering Roman remains during the excavation.
Dans la ville de Sylvia is an oblique film about a young man looking for a lost love while visiting Strasbourg. While very different from the earlier film, it does however share its warmth and its feeling for the lived urban environment. There are few directors that film people and buildings with equal care. There’s a fine essay by Guerín on En construcción here and it’s interesting to note that one of his early films, Innisfree was filmed in Ireland and is apparently a tribute to John Ford.

Trailer for Dans la ville de Sylvia:

7.The Free Will (Matthias Glasner – Germany)
The German cinema renaissance is one of the most inspiring things to have happened in recent years. The country has a chequered film history, with its glory Ufa days ending when the Nazi’s rise to power sent the talent fleeing to Hollywood. There then followed the golden age of the New German Cinema in the 1970s which faded out with the deaths of Fassbinder and Syberberg , the decline of Schlöndorff and the self-enforced irrelevance of Wim Wenders. Until a few years ago there had been little to get excited about in the film production of Europe’s biggest country but now the quality of output is such that almost every German release is worth seeing nowadays. The country produces intelligent box-office hits such as Goodbye Lenin!, Downfall, The Lives of Others and The Baader Meinhof Complex but also a slew of excellent low-key social dramas directed by men and women mostly under the age of 40.

Matthias Glasner’s The Free Will is the best of a number of good films from Germany this year. Jürgen Vogel (who also co-wrote the screenplay) plays a sex offender released from prison at the beginning of the film who moves into a halfway house with hopes of rehabilitating himself and settling back into society. Things, as you can imagine, don’t work out as his brutal urges resurface, overcoming even the possibility of a relationship with the young student he develops a normal relationship with. It’s a frank, disturbing film that is a rare dramatic portrait of an everyday monster.

Trailer for The Free Will:

8.Hunger (Steve McQueen - UK/Ireland)
When I first heard about Hunger, I couldn’t have been less interested. Did we really need another film about the hunger strikes? And, Steve McQueen’s reputation as a visual artist notwithstanding, I was worried that the result might be an over-aestheticization with most of the politics sucked out of it. So I’m glad I was proved wrong. Hunger is a fascinating, unflinching look at the strength of a principle and people’s determinations to stand by them. Previous H-Block films such as Some Mother’s Son and H3 were typically void of either a visual sense or ideas like many British or Irish films but McQueen dissects the historical incident with economy and aplomb. Michael Fassbender is great as Bobby Sands, with the 20-minute-long colloquy with Liam Cunningham that lies at the centre of the film a masterclass in dramatic writing. More remarkably, though McQueen’s sympathies are clearly with the hunger strikers, there is no facile endorsement of the IRA forthcoming. The Republicans are shown to be every bit as brutal as their captors and you don’t need to be a supporter of the men of violence to be affected by this film.

Trailer for Hunger:

9. Je veux voir (Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige – Lebanon/France)
The Lebanese video artist pairing of Hadjithomas and Joreige came to international attention a couple of years back with the Antonioni-esque Perfect Day, the tale of a narcoleptic young Lebanese haunted by the disappearance of his father who was kidnapped during the Civil War and now about to be declared officially dead. It was a film I should have liked but I found it stultifyingly languid and ironically, for a film about a narcoleptic, put me to sleep.

Perfect Day came out before the 2006 Israeli bombing, the results of which form the basis for their second oblique film. Catherine Deneuve, attending a film festival in Beirut, announces she wants to see the damage done to the country. Hadjithomas and Joreige go with her and film her. It’s a strange film, where Deneuve plays herself in what appears to be a documentary but of course is a scripted film. Ill at ease, she slowly develops a rapport with her driver Rabieh Mroue; they chat about the effect of decades of war on Lebanon and view the rubble in the Lebanese capital and the southern towns, shattered by the bombings. Very little happens in this short, 75-minute film, but few other films have managed to make a country come to life on screen so well with such modest means. Just sit back and watch.

Trailer for Je veux voir:

10.Entre les murs (Laurent Cantet – France)
France’s first Palme d’Or in 21 years, a fillip for the country’s film industry, which produced some great movies this year. Writer, film critic and schoolteacher François Bégaudeau’s semi-autobiographical 2006 novel forms the basis of the film. Cantet chose Bégaudeau himself to play the role of the teacher, an inspired move, while a gaggle of Parisian teenagers effectively play themselves as devilish brats who barrack their teacher at every opportunity. The film fizzes with ideas, particularly concerning the French language and the issue of immigrant integration. It is a warm yet unsentimental account of the struggles played out in the French classroom. Though it incorporates most of the episodes in the source novel there is a keen sense of spontaneity in the work-shopped scenes. And one of the most heart-warming sights of the year was seeing its teenage cast traipse en bloc from film festival to film festival.

Trailer for Entre les murs:

Other films worth a look (in no particular order)

Wonderful Town (Aditya Assarat – Thailand)
Teeth (Mitchell Lichtenstein – USA)
Le Silence de Lorna (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne – Belgium)
Happy-Go-Lucky (Mike Leigh – UK)
Woman on the Beach (Hong Sang-Soo – South Korea)
Un conte de noël (Arnaud Desplechin – France)
Changeling (Clint Eastwood – USA)
Home (Ursula Meier – Switzerland/Belgium/France)
W. (Oliver Stone – USA)
La vie moderne (Raymond Depardon – France)
Christopher Columbus, the Enigma (Manoel de Oliveira – Portugal)
Tropic Thunder (Ben Stiller – USA)
Jar City (Balthasar Kormákur – Iceland)
El Otro (Ariel Rotter – Argentina)
Frownland (Ronald Bronstein – USA)
Lake Tahoe (Fernando Eimbcke – Mexico)
Mesrine: L’Instinct de mort/Mesrine: Ennemi publique Nº1 (Jean-Christophe Richet – France/Canada)
Dernier maquis (Rabah Ameur Zaïmeche – France)
The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan – USA)
The Tears of Mrs Wang (Liu Bingjian – China)
It’s a Free World… (Ken Loach – UK)
There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson – USA)
La Influencía (Pedro Aguilar – Spain/Mexico)
Cloud Nine (Andreas Dreiser – Germany)
Counterparts (Jan Bonny – Germany)
No Country for Old Men (Joel and Ethan Coen – USA)
Funny Games US (Michael Haneke – USA)
Yurmurta (Semih Kaplanoglu – Turkey/Greece)
Four Nights with Anna (Jerzy Skolimowski – Poland)
The Banishment (Andrei Zvygavintsev – Russia)
Leonera (Pablo Trapero – Argentina)
Body Rice (Hugo Vieira da Silva – Portugal/Germany)
Garage (Lenny Abrahamson – Ireland)
XXY (Lucía Puenzo –Argentina)
Agnus Dei (Lucía Cedrón – Argentina)
My Magic (Eric Khoo – Singapore)
Foster Child/Serbis (Brillante Mendoza – Philippines)
The Visitor (Tom MacCarthy – USA)
The Orphanage (Juan Antonio Bayona – Spain)
The Pope’s Toilet (César Charlone and Enrique Fernández – Uruguay)
California Dreamin’ (Endless) (Cristian Nemescu – Romania)

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