Tuesday, December 15, 2009
The Life Aquatic…With Steve Zissou (Wes Anderson – USA, 2004)
People either love or hate Wes Anderson, though I find I have a foot in either camp. I initially detested The Royal Tennenbaums before a second viewing revealed it to be not quite as irritating as I first thought. I then joined the anti-Wes backlash when I found the hipster impassivity of The Darjeeling Express nigh unwatchable. But occasionally Anderson does it right, even if his films, for all their notional subtexts of failing fathers, are frivolous things. Along with Rushmore, The Life Aquatic… is his best film. For no reason other than it is funny. Very funny. One of the few performances by Bill Murray in recent years that doesn’t feel like it has been faxed in, a string of great sight gags, and as usual, a great soundtrack, with Scott Walker and Iggy interspersed with Seu Jorge’s Bowie covers. It stays just the right side of quirky.
Eccentricities of a Blonde-Haired Girl (Manoel de Oliveira – Portugal, 2009)
Filmmakers don’t come any more amazingly redoubtable than Manoel de Oliveira. The Portuguese director turned 101 last week, and this decade he turned out a film per year, as well as a handful of shorts, in both Portuguese and French. He even starred in one of them, Christopher Columbus – the Enigma along with his wife of sixty-nine years. Almost any of the ten films would deserve a place here but I’ll go for a personal favourite, this year’s Eccentricities of a Blonde-Haired Girl, a charming adaptation of an Eça de Queiroz short story, scarcely an hour long but bewildering in its pacing and its wilful anachronism, which nonetheless works perfectly. The film is like palimpsests layered on top of one another, each one gradually becoming visible, much like the faded charm of Lisbon itself. De Oliveira is the only currently active filmmaker whose career goes back to the silent era (he even worked on Portugal’s second sound film in 1932) and his continued vitality and intelligence puts to shame dozens of cineastes decades younger than him.
What Time is it There? and The Wayward Cloud (Tsai Ming-Liang – France/Taiwan, 2002 and Taiwan, 2005)
Tsai Ming-Liang is not an easy director and he has become increasingly experimental since he first came to international prominence in the early 90s. What Time is it There? was his first sortie outside his adopted homeland of Taiwan (he’s originally from Malaysia), a touching tale of loneliness and disaffection experienced by a young Taiwanese woman visiting Paris. It’s a convincing portrait of timidity in the face of culture shock. Tsai renewed his relationship with Paris with this year’s almost impenetrable Visage but a little more accessible is his 2005 film The Wayward Cloud which combines watermelons, a Taipei heatwave, an impromptu porn film and the high-camp song-and-dance numbers already glimpsed in his earlier surreal drama, The Hole. Tsai can be hard work at times (there always seems to be at least one walk-out during a screening) but his films are also often fun and in the hangdog, perpetually mute Lee Kang-Sheng he has one of the great comic actors of our time.
We Own the Night (James Gray – USA, 2007)
I suppose I shouldn’t go on knocking Martin Scorsese all the time but it was striking, following the hugely successful but overrated The Departed, how a younger New York director was able to mount much the same film a few months later with far greater élan, economy of style and theme and with far less pretentiousness. Until this film I was not particularly taken by Gray but his tale of family cops, played by Robert Duvall as the father and Mark Wahlberg and Joaquin Phoenix as his sons, battling the emerging Russian mafia in Brighton Beach in 1988 was irresistible. Gray followed it up with the even more stunning Two Lovers, of which more later. Phoenix and Wahlberg also produced as well as turning in great performances, a doubly great contribution to contemporary American cinema sorely missing intelligent dramas like this.
The Magdalene Sisters (Peter Mullan – UK/Ireland, 2002)
Though actor Peter Mullan’s directorial debut Orphans was promising, I wasn’t sure that his account of women condemned to the hell of the Irish Magdalene laundries would amount to much. You could sense the playbook well in advance. And though the film pulls no punches in its polemical accusations towards the Church, the film is intelligent, subtle agitprop rather than a crude tirade. The reason it works so well is Mullan implicates the viewer in the onscreen crime. For an Irish viewer of even my generation, the society on display is uncomfortably familiar, and while the Catholic Church is clearly villainous and rotten to the core, there is also a searing indictment of a society and a people that let them get away with it all. And judging by the official responses to the Ryan and Murphy reports, intends to continue to do so.
Capote (Bennett Miller – USA, 2005)
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.
Black Book (Paul Verhoeven – Netherlands, 2006)
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.
Control (Anton Corbijn – UK, 2007)
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.
Night and Day (Hong Sang-Soo – South Korea/France, 2008)
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.
Gran Torino (Clint Eastwood – USA, 2008)
You never really know what you’re going to get from Clint. The quality of his films varies as widely as his subject matter, but you have to hand it to him for the frequency with which he turns them out. His finest film of recent years may well be the one the older Clint is remembered for. A film that veers close to clumsiness in its examination of racism in blue-collar Detroit, it had particular timeliness for being released just as the US auto industry began to endure its death pangs. Walt Kowalski is a hateful old racist crank who is bitter at everyone in his life, including his two sons, who have even gone so far as to betray his life’s legacy by driving Japanese cars. Walt treats the arrival next door of an Asian immigrant family with predictable disdain, which is reciprocated by many of the family. Things change though when he runs off some thuggish relatives, and the grateful Hmong family and Clint gradually warn to one another. The film has the potential to be very hokey indeed and on first appearance does seem a little simplistic but the overlying simplicity masks a robust moral purpose, worthy of a studio-era classic (the film is, quite suitably, a Warners production). Eastwood has forged an unlikely but genuine humanism in his films over the past twenty years and even when he doesn’t get it right, to see someone from the very mainstream of American popular culture exercise such principled free thinking is stirring.
Tony Manero (Pablo Larraín – Chile, 2008)
Tony Manero is the tale of Raúl, a 52-year-old ne'er-do-well obsessed with Saturday Night Fever in the dark days of the military dictatorship in Chile in the late 70s. His dream is to appear in a TV talent contest as a John Travolta clone. So far, so-Full Monty. But Tony Manero is a far more scabrous, disobliging work, an ill-mannered riposte to the idea that popular culture (especially American pop culture) can provide redemption in the face of political repression. In this film, pop music is, at best a malign distraction from the evil within, at worst a vector for the rotten state of a country whose ruling élite has placed its consumer concerns above human ones. It reminds me of the lines parrotted by Pinochet supporters as the old bastard was held under house arrest in London ten years ago: "Before the General came to power, you couldn't even get blue jeans in Chile. He saved our country."
Apparently at its Cannes screening 18 months ago, several Hollywood studio executives left violently angry, incredulous anyone could envisage their product used for dark ends. Job well done, Pablo Larraín, whose second film this is. It’s a work that cares too much about the history of Chile to blindly do the bidding of entertainment. Not that it isn’t entertaining either, mind.
12:08 East of Bucharest (Corneliu Poromboiu – Romania, 2006)
Corneliu Poromboiu put his experience as a cameraman on a local television station to good use in this incredibly funny political comedy which attempts to establish, sixteen years on from the fall of Ceausescu, if there was any revolutionary impetus in a provincial Romanian town before the dictator, abdicated, at 12.08pm on the 22nd of December 1989. Tiberiu Manescu, alcoholic college professor, claims there was, and he was part of it. Conflicting testimonies on a phone-in show say otherwise, that he was part of a group of drunken revellers who seized their moment of revolutionary glory when it was safe to do so. The film is by turns gentle good-natured and cynically sinister, not least when a former Securitate officer, now a successful businessman, ‘persuades’ Tiberiu to withdraw allegations made on air. The film drags a little towards the end but it has a sharp comic spirit and Ion Sapdaru, who seems to pop up in every Romanian film these days, is great as the poor, pathetic Tiberiu. And Poromboiu, a young talent to watch, directs with a lyrical touch.
Tropical Malady (Apichatpong Weerasethakul – Thailand, 2004)
Thai cinema gained a new international prominence this decade, and Weerasethakul was probably the most successful director, with a string of films appearing at the big festivals. Tropical Malady is a strange beast, a diptych of two films that seem to have little in common, the first a gay love story between two Thai soldiers and the second a pursuit through the jungle of a mysterious tiger spirit. The film is a masterpiece of sensual cinema, with almost no dialogue at all in the second part, with the narrative relying on only the basic of dramatic hooks. It is also fantastically shot, the screen bursting with lush colour. A visual treat.
Code inconnu: Récit incomplet de divers voyages and Caché (Michael Haneke – France, 2000 & 2005)
Austrian moralist Haneke upped sticks and moved to France to work at the start of the decade, extending his themes to absorb the ills and fears of modern French, and European society. Juliette Binoche starts in each of these films, the first a gripping, open-ended series of fragments in which she plays an actress married to a war photographer and whose fugitive brother sets in train a series of events that result in the expulsion of a Romanian asylum seekers. In Caché, a much tighter film, she is married to Daniel Auteuil, a TV arts presenter who is being harassed by a figure from his distant past. Both films have the customary iciness one expects from Haneke and each manage to avoid the more deterministic scenarios of his weaker work. And, as ever, the films are a perfect blend of style and substance.
Songs from the Second Floor (Roy Andersson – Sweden, 2000)
The flop of Andersson’s second film Giliap in 1975 was so chastening an experience he was unable to get funding for a feature for another 25 years. Instead he made some of the most inventive commercials ever and when he came back it was with a bang. Songs from the Second Floor is a surreally apocalyptic deadpan masterpiece that uses the same elaborately choreographed single takes as the commercials. It is both hilarious and nightmarish and the glumness of the décor and the ugliness of the characters make Aki Käurismäki look like Vincente Minelli. Andersson took a mere seven years to follow it up with the equally bizarre You, the Living.
Oxhide (Liu Jia-Yin – China, 2005)
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 was only 25 at the time 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.
Our Daily Bread (Nikolaus Geyrhalter – Austria, 2005), We Feed the World and Let’s Make Money (Erwin Wagehofer – Austria, 2005 & 2008)
Food documentaries came into vogue this decade; the films were of varying quality but most had a bien pensant streak in common. Two of the better ones came from Austria and were both released within months of one another. Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s Our Daily Bread was the more experimental of the two, being a non-narrative look at food production across Europe, going from salt mines in Poland to slaughterhouses in Austria to greenhouses in Almería. The film is a hypnotic, if sometimes unsettling passage through the various production cycles, portrayed via lengthy, geometrically precise tableaux. More overtly polemical is Erwin Waghofer’s We Feed the World, which takes its title from the motto of the German agri-giant Pioneer. There are more accusatory interviews, particularly with Swiss sociologist and UN Special Rapporteur Jean Ziegler, and Nestlé chief executive Peter Brabeck steps in to defend his company, in much the same vaguely sinister way as the Mondavi family in Jonathan Nossiter’s Mondovino. The film’s focus is more on the cost and waste, both humanitarian and ecological, of an industry that is wildly skewed in favour of Europeans in search of cheap food. The film may strike some as preachy but Wagehofer has a fine visual sensibility for a journalist. He then pulled the same trick a second time three years later on the financial services industry with Let’s Make Money. In production long before the crisis, by the time it came out it was fully vindicated.
Spirited Away (Hayao Miyazaki – Japan, 2001)
Miyazaki’s Oscar-winning animated gem won him wide recognition in the West. Lonely 10-year-old Chihiro is left friendless when her family moves to a new town; one day when walking in the woods with her parents she disappears down a tunnel and is befriended by a number of mysterious spirits. In order to save her parents, who have been turned into pigs for the dinner table of the gods, she takes a job in the gods’ bathhouse. The film, like most of the best tales for children is dark and admonitory, a parable that teaches the virtues of self-responsibility and loyalty to friends and family. It might be said that Miyazaki makes the same film every time but his clean, old-fashioned cell animation, and his formal inventiveness, not to mention his first-class story-telling make Spirited Away a kids’ film to watch again and again.
In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar-Wai – Hong Kong, 2000)
Perhaps even more so than Chungking Express, this is the distillation of the entire career of Wong Kar-Wai. Wong revisits the Hong Kong of the 1960s he treated in Days of Being Wild for this gorgeously atmospheric tale of adultery between neighbours played by Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung, sparked by their common suspicion that their spouses are themselves engaged in an affair with one another. It’s a film of modest ambition that’s all the more impressive for this. Wong’s flimsy English-language debut My Blueberry Nights later suggested that buried beneath all the Cantonese dialogue was whimsy all along, but In the Mood for Love rings true, as was the unorthodox ‘sequel’ 2046, released four years later.
Being John Malkovich (Spike Jonze – USA, 1999)
Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman’s bizzaroid comedy was one of the original thing to come out of Hollywood this decade and it took a rare genius to take a personality as imposing – and at times unpleasant – as Malkovich and send him up. And Malkovich went for it too, though who wouldn’t want to be immortalized, however ridiculously, in a cult film? It’s a film that is actually as clever as all that and the pair pulled off the trick again three years later with the equally left-field Adaptation. And judging by their respective films since then, they need one another badly.
Mulholland Dr. (David Lynch – USA/France, 2001)
Lynch’s failed TV pilot was salvaged to provide one of the most enduring American films of the noughties. Not quite as indecipherable as the later Inland Empire, the film nonetheless stumped many viewers and Lynch even published five clues in newspaper advertisements that worked brilliantly to entice people back to watch it multiple times. Lynch can be maddening at times, not least the Zen Buddhist nonsense he comes out with, but he is one of those artists that articulates himself far better through his work. And even when you don’t have a clue what’s going on, it’s engrossing stuff trying to figure it out.
The President’s Last Bang (Im Sang-Soo – South Korea, 2005)
Im’s darkly comic account of the murder of Korean president Park Chung-Hee at the hands of his bodyguards, not surprisingly caused some controversy in his home country. Park’s son secured a court injunction forcing Im to make cuts, which resulted in the film strangely carrying three-and-a-half minutes of a black screen, until the injunction was reversed a year later. The portrayal of the former President is none too complimentary with him viewed largely as a lascivious alcoholic buffoon with suspiciously Japanophile tendencies. Having already survived two assassination attempts, a web of intrigue surrounding his handling of student protests finally put paid to him. The film is stylishly mounted and well paced, with most of the action taking place in the days preceding Park’s murder. And in case anyone had any doubts about where Im’s sympathies lay, he followed it up a year later with The Old Garden, an account of a former dissident’s release after decades in prison for his part in the 1979 protests.