Wednesday, December 09, 2009
Man on the Moon (Milos Forman – USA, 2000)
Milos Forman followed up his Larry Flynt biopic with one of another American curio, comedian Andy Kaufman. You don’t have to think Kaufman was an undisputed comic genius (I certainly don’t) to be both tickled and moved by this film, which features Jim Carrey’s finest performance as the late comedian, who was best known for playing Laika in Taxi. Carrey had only recently proven himself as a serious actor in The Truman Show and this film cemented his reputation, earning him a Golden Globe and he was incredibly overlooked for an Oscar nomination. The film is especially impressive in that it manages to relay at second hand how funny Kaufman could (sometimes) be and the stand-up scenes are masterfully staged. Forman, being both an outsider (Czech by birth) and contemporary witness (he rose to Hollywood fame at the same time as Kaufman), was uniquely placed to impart a sense of wonder in the film and the sharp script is by the Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewki, writers of the finest biopic of the 90s, Ed Wood. Man on the Moon is an equally fitting portrait of an unsung hero of American pop culture.
This is England (Shane Meadows – UK, 2007)
Nottingham autodidact Shane Meadows is a one-man film industry, having risen from making camcorder shorts on the cheap to arthouse auteur. His films all benefit from his clear affection for his characters and a complete lack of pretentiousness. After a brief blip using name British actors in the uninspired Once Upon a Time in the Midlands, Meadows went back to working with lesser lights, including his old friend Paddy Considine, whom he, ironically helped turn into one of Britain’s most sought-after young character actors. The disturbing Dead Man’s Shoes was followed by This is England, a semi-autobiographical tale about a 12-year-old boy getting sucked in by the National Front in 1982 Scarborough. Shaun is recently arrived in town following the death of his father in the Falklands War. Some friendly skinheads take him under their wing only for the sinister fascist Combo to muscle in on things on his release from prison. Shaun falls for Combo’s tough-guy charisma and is soon abusing Pakistani shopkeepers and attending far-right rallies. The film is a clear-eyed, non-moralising view of the menacing embrace of racism closing in on a vulnerable person. Meadows is one of the rare talents in British cinema who can combine a superb skill with actors with a visual sensibility that is almost European in its lyricism. Thrilling stuff.
The Werckmeister Harmonies (Béla Tarr – Hungary, 2000)
I first heard of Béla Tarr ten years ago in a eulogy penned by Gus Van Sant and published in Le Monde. As well as being proof that Van Sant still had a stirring of adventurousness in him it was a tantalising glimpse of the sort of director you see so rarely in contemporary cinema. The Werckmeister Harmonies is a relatively straightforward work compared to Tarr’s earlier seven-hour long Satantango, but it nonetheless demands attention and patience, running to 160 minutes and being comprised of no more than 38 shots, and shot entirely in claustrophobic monochrome. Tarr is not terribly interested in plot or story and his pre-apocalyptic tale set in a village on the frozen Hungarian plains has only frail scrimpings of either. But when it comes to atmosphere, mood and character, he has few betters. And, like all his films, The Werckmeister Harmonies leaves you with a murky uneasy sensation, rather similar to a dog’s distant howl on a dark night.
Uzak (Nuri Bilge Ceylan – Turkey, 2002)
Turkish photographer and filmmaker Ceylan made an international name for himself with this beautiful film about the gradual falling out between an enthusiastic young provincial freshly disembarked in Istanbul and his successful photographer cousin whom he stays with. The cousin is a man who feels he has outgrown family obligations and his gauche relative quickly becomes an unwelcome imposition. As one would expect from an accomplished photographer the film is wonderfully shot right from the lengthy opening scene of the young hero leaving his snowbound Anatolian village. The film is also rich in dramatic detail, with the heartbreaking final rupture cruelly hinging on an incident of petty crime. It also has one fantastic gag, where the photographer tries to watch a porno, but is forced to switch on Tarkovsky’s Stalker to discourage his cousin when he intrudes.
Dancer in the Dark (Lars Von Trier – Denmark/Sweden, 2000)
Von Trier finally won the Palme d’Or for this maddeningly provocative film and secured a lifetime of brickbats for his alleged misogyny and anti-Americanism (neither of which is true). Taking the Dogme strictures he conceived more or less for his own benefit to another level, LVT fashioned a roughly-hewn masterpiece that, like Björk’s acting, gets better and better as it progresses. Unusually for an established artist, the film inspires the exact type of thrill you get when you discover brilliance in a complete unknown. There’s an army of Von Trier haters out there to rival his admirers, and that’s exactly the way he wants it.
Blackboards (Samira Makhmalbaf – Iran, 2000)
Made when she was only 22, Makhmalbaf’s tale of itinerant schoolmasters in Iranian Kurdistan is an impressive but bleak interrogation of the value of culture and learning amidst the most adverse human suffering. Using, like so many Iranian directors, non-professional actors, Makhmalbaf has a steady, unsentimental eye and her social questioning has an echo of early Pasolini about it. She’s a resolutely unglamorous filmmaker, who has since concentrated on Afghanistan for her films, with varying degrees of success. But there should be more like Blackboards to come.
The Free Will (Matthias Glasner – Germany, 2006)
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.
Matthias Glasner’s The Free Will was one of the better German films this decade. 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.
Hunger (Steve McQueen – UK/Ireland, 2008)
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.
Je veux voir (Khalil Joreige and Joana Hadjithomas – Lebanon/France, 2008)
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.
Eastern Promises (David Cronenberg – UK/Canada, 2007)
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.
Silent Light (Carlos Reygadas – Mexico/France, 2007)
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.
Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait (Philippe Parrano and Douglas Gordon – France/UK, 2006)
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 2006 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. Along with the efforts of Steve McQueen and Khalil Joreige and Joanna Hadjithomas, Zidane suggests video artists moving up to the big screen is not such a bad thing at all.
Close to Home (Vardit Bilu and Dalia Hager – Israel, 2005)
One of the big cinematic success stories of the decade is Israel. An influx of funding from television and a flowering of a talented generation of filmmakers have resulted in a string of great films, many of which give a glimpse of Israeli society to Westerners that is more nuanced than the rigidly heroic or villainous tone taken by either sides in the Israel/Palestine debate. Close to Home is one of the lesser known of those films but it’s a little gem. 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.
To Get to Heaven, First You Have to Die (Jamshed Usmonov – Tajikistan, 2006)
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.
Encounters at the End of the World (Werner Herzog – USA/Germany, 2007)
Werner Herzog continues to give the best value of those German filmmakers that sprung to prominence in the 1970s. Now focusing mainly on documentaries, Herzog persuaded the National Science Foundation to fund his Antarctic film but declared that he would not be making another film about penguins. Herzog joins the research teams at the McMurdo research station and interviews those there about their motivations for going there, he meets a Russian philosopher, a Canadian linguist who specializes in dying languages, a Czech former refugee who has a 20kilo pack ready for a quick getaway at all times and vulcanologists studying one of the world’s most active volcanoes. Herzog’s mordantly deadpan narration is wildly funny and he has an admirable distrust of pseudo-spiritual cant and a love of scientific enquiry. The film is beautifully shot, both above and under the ice, and a lone, deranged penguin, despite Herzog’s initial intentions, ends up giving the film its best known scene. One of the most entertaining documentaries of the decade.
Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino – USA, 2009)
Like many, I had given up on Quentin Tarantino. Kill Bill was too big and too unwieldy for such a flimsy theme, Deathproof was a return to form but you still felt Tarantino could stretch himself more. The news that he was doing a film about Jewish Nazi-hunters during World War II wasn’t encouraging; I doubted the subject matter would survive the exposure to Tarantino irony. And I have to admit it’s still a mystery why his scattershot approach to history is so successful. I think it might be due to the fact that Tarantino understands the spirit of the second World War better than most. Not for him a slavish reconstruction of the facts but, better than almost any American filmmaker before him he understands how vital a role language played in the occupation by the Nazis. The tour-de-force opening scene plays on this as does another scene where Melanie Laurent’s Jewish escapee listens to a conversation in German, on which the camera lingers and which is, crucially, left unsubtitled. This is a brilliant distillation of the alienating effect of occupation, something that French critics – who almost universally acclaimed the film – recognised better than their Anglophone counterparts. Many would quibble at the counter-factual nature of much of the film but this was a common theme in popular culture of the time (Michael Chabon already touched upon it in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay) and it also contains a kernel of truth, with an echo of the infamous Ratlines that helped thousands of Nazis escape justice at the end of the war. The film is not perfect, with some of the acting and the plotting quite mangled but you certainly don’t feel cheated at the end of it. Quite how Tarantino pulled it off, I don’t know.
Gomorrah (Matteo Garrone – Italy, 2008)
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.
24 Hour Party People (Michael Winterbottom – UK, 2002)
The incredibly prolific Winterbottom, like Steven Soderberg, can be a bit hit and miss but he’s always worth a look, his subject matter ranging from adaptations of Hardy and Tristram Shandy to tales of Afghan refugees and internees of Guantanamo Bay. And sometimes he completely surprises you with a film like 24 Hour Party People, a hugely enjoyable account of the rise and fall of Factory Records, told through the eyes of its mercurial founder Anthony H. Wilson, played by Steve Coogan. Unlike Anton Corbijn’s Control, the tone is light, even the sequences covering Ian Curtis’ last days, but it never feels frivolous. While the film’s subject matter obviously limits its appeal, for those in the know there is a pleasure to be had spotting the personalities from the various Manchester scenes in both their real and onscreen incarnations (Howard Devoto of Magazine, for example, pops up as a toilet cleaner while The Stone Roses’ Mani plays a sound engineer). The music’s good, it doesn’t take itself seriously and it gives a rare chance for Manchester to appear on the big screen. One of the better films about music.
The Return (Andrei Zvyagintsev – Russia, 2003)
Andrei Zvyagintsev came from nowhere to win the Golden Lion at Venice in 2003 with this bleak but stylish film about the return of an alcoholic father to his family. He insists on spending some quality time with his two young sons who know him only from an old photograph, and it soon becomes apparent that the reunion is going to be an uneasy one. In one respect the film might be considered the epitome of the Russian miserablist family drama and there are times when it veers close to cliché. But the overall tone rings true, with superb acting, particularly from the two children. Zvyagintsev returned at Cannes four years later with the similarly dark The Banishment, which most critics hated. But that too is worth a look.
Rois et reine (Arnaud Desplechin – France, 2004)
Desplechin made his international breakthrough with this compelling ensemble drama about two ex-lovers (Emmanuelle Devos and Mathieu Amalric). Devos is coping with the impending death of her father, having previously lost a husband, while Amalric’s musician is trying to break free from a mental asylum. Like in his later Un conte de Noël (also excellent) Desplechin paints human relationship with punctilious, novelistic detail. A talky film in the best sense of French cinema but one mercifully devoid of pretention.