Monday, December 21, 2009
The Man Without a Past (Aki Kaurismäki – Finland, 2002)
Kaurismäki narrowly missed out on both the Palme d’Or and Best Foreign Language Film Oscar for this film in 2002 but it deservedly made him known to a wider international audience. A man is brutally beaten in a mugging and wakes up with no recollection of his past. He starts life from scratch and strikes up a relationship with a Salvation Army worker played by Kati Outenen, who won Best Actress at Cannes for this. Like Kaurismäki’s earlier Drifting Clouds and later Lights in the Dusk, the film is a loving, matter-of-fact look at the resilience of the poor. He sees heroism in people whom many would dismiss as losers or basketcases; and underneath the deadpan front, a darkly humorous genius glistens. Kaurismäki is one of the great characters of international cinema and an unfailingly generous one. When, at the height of the Bush-era xenophobia, Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami was refused a visa to appear at the New York Film Festival, Kaurismäki refused to turn up himself.
Nobody Knows (Kore-Eda Hirokazu – Japan, 2004)
Hirokazu is a quiet, unassuming director probably best known for his brilliant 1998 film Afterlife, where the recently deceased pass through an clearing house on their way to the eponymous afterlife. In Nobody Knows, a single mother abandons her four children, the oldest aged twelve. The four fend for themselves with remarkable success, managing to find food to live and even pay the rent. The mother returns briefly and then disappears almost as quickly. Hirokazu’s patient, gently paced direction is mesmerising but best of all is the performances he gets out of the four kids who, in most scenes don’t even have adults to play off.
There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson – USA, 2007)
For all its scope, its anchoring in the history of California oil and its origins in Upton Sinclair’s Oil!, Anderson’s fifth film is largely an interior one. There’s not much nuance in its historical portrayal of the oil trade, nor in Paul Dano’s preacher, who is almost a cartoon character who never ages throughout the film. But the film is a superb character-centred film with Daniel Day-Lewis striding the surrounding big country like a colossus. The opening half-hour where he silently labours towards his breakthrough is a stylish tour de force that few Hollywood directors would even conceive of. And Daniel Plainview (a representative name if there ever were one) storms through the film and his life with an irrepressible sense of self-entitlement and bitterness. He is a personification, if not of capitalism itself, but of the energy that drives entrepreneur’s on even when the goals no longer have any meaning. Probably the closest thing to Citizen Kane that has ever been attempted since Welles’ film came out.
Stuck On You (Peter and Bobby Farrelly – USA, 2003)
The Farrelly brothers’ gross-out comedies often have hidden in them an unlikely moral purpose – one that is far more subversive and sympathetic than the suburban conservatism of the overrated Judd Apatow. This insanely silly tale of conjoined twins – played by Greg Kinnear and Matt Damon doubles as an adroit critique of prejudice and marginalisation of the disabled, without ever sinking into mawkishness. And everybody, including Meryl Streep and Cher – who send themselves up gloriously – looks like they’re having a ball playing in it.
Yi-Yi (Edward Yang – Taiwan, 2000)
This decade saw the sad death of Edward Yang at the relatively young age of 59. Yi-Yi was his most successful film ever, a touching drama about three generations of a Taipei family, whose father NJ is unhappy in his career, has seen his mother slip into a coma and his wife leave him to go to a rural retreat following a mid-life crisis. It all sounds grim but it has a lighter touch than you’d think. And despite running for almost three hours it never gets dull.
Far From Heaven and I’m Not There (Todd Haynes – USA, 2002 and 2007)
Haynes is one of the most fascinating American directors there is, a true original, who delights in playing with the conventions of form and the icons of American pop culture. Far From Heaven is a pastiche of a Douglas Sirk that ought to be wearisome in its slavish reproduction of 50s suburban Connecticut and its right thinking. But it works, Dennis Quaid, Julianne Moore and Dennis Haysbert play it straight and Ed Lachman’s stunning fall-inflected cinematography raises it to the level of Sirk’s lush Technicolor masterpieces. I’m Not There retells the more interesting years in Bob Dylan’s career and Haynes has the inspired move of getting a string of actors, including Cate Blanchett, Richard Gere and Heath Ledger to play the man. There’s more than a touch of Haynes’ underrated Velvet Goldmine in the playfulness, and Haynes gets Dylan’s significance spot-on without regard to lengthy exegesis or sociological musing. And a double album soundtrack of Dylan covers by some great artists is the icing on the cake.
Beau Travail and L’Intrus (Claire Denis – France, 1999 and 2005)
Claire Denis is a quietly prolific treasure of French cinema, whose films feature heroes in existential revolt against constraining environments. Beau Travail updates Herman Melville’s Billy Budd to a Foreign Legion outpost in Djibouti. Denis Lavant play an officer who becomes fascinated by and jealous of a younger, better looking recruit played by Grégoire Colin, whom he sets out to destroy. In L’Intrus, Michel Subor goes on the run to Tahiti after a heart transplant. There he reminisces about his life as a young man, which is illustrated by footage from an unfinished film Subor shot in the Pacific with Paul Gégauff in the early 60s. It’s a liberating film about a solitary but defiant man approaching old age. Adapted from a philosophical text by Jean-Luc Nancy, which was more obliquely adapted the same year by Nicolas Klotz for the film La Blessure, about African immigrants squatting in Paris.
WALL-E (Andrew Stanton – USA, 2008)
Disney did well to acquire Pixar back in the 90s because just as the Mouse has seemed incapable of producing out any original material, never mind good stuff, Pixar has matured into a glittering studio the likes of which has not been seen in Hollywood for decades. It’s a pleasing vindication for Pixar founder John Lasseter whose adventurous proposals earned him the sack from Disney as a young man. Wall-E is probably Pixar’s best film so far (though there’s some very stiff competition). The quality of the animation has by now evolved so well to deal with the complex graphic depiction of an abandoned planet. There are techno-anthropomorphic thrills galore as Wall-E, the waste disposal robot discovers love in the form of the reconnaissance ‘probe’ Eve, and you can’t help but like it, even as it gets cutesier and cutesier. The film doesn’t quite live up to its stunning opening half hour but it is still possessed of a far greater dollop of misanthropy than you’d expect from such a film. And there’s great peasure to be had in the workings of the cutting-edge Heath Robinson devices that populate the ‘earth-in-exile’. And some of the gags are priceless.
Les invasions barbares (Denys Arcand – Canada, 2003)
Arcand’s sequel to Le declin de l’empire américain was so good that it actually breathed life into the preceding film, which I always thought had dated very soon after its 1986 release. Arcand had initially intended making a different film about death after his own father’s death from cancer a couple of years previously. But he soon realised a reunion of the group of philandering left-wing academics was the perfect vehicle for the film. But the main focus of the film is the dying Rémy’s relationship with his financier son, who, despite a hugely successful career has never lived up to his intellectual father’s expectations. It’s a talky film endowed with superb acting and a poignant sense of loss for earlier ideals, with the shadows of the fall of Communism and 9/11 looming large. Despite the grandiosity and the pretentions of its protagonists it’s an accessible and moving drama.
Persepolis (Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud – France/USA, 2007)
Satrapi’s Persepolis was probably the comic book that defined the decade and enjoyed a huge international success. She then adapted her autobiography for the big screen with fellow bande dessinateur Vincent Paronnaud. It’s a faithful enough adaptation and the book’s distinctive heavy monochrome lines are preserved with some slight shade for the domestic scenes and the book’s dark humour is maintained throughout. The book – and the film – is probably more responsible than anything else for destroying the idea in the West of Iranians as firebrand anti-American fundamentalists. In a memorable appearance by Satrapi on Stephen Colbert, her host called the humanizing of Iranians before a possible Israeli or American strike ‘dangerous’. Not surprisingly neither the film nor the book pleased the Mullahs in Iran, which is surely the highest of praise.
Kandahar (Mohsen Makhmalbaf – Iran/Canada, 2001)
Mohsen Makhmalbaf was a star of world cinema in the 90s though this decade he’s been much quieter. He did however briefly spring to public prominence shortly after 9/11 when his film about a Canadian Afghan returning to her native land while under Taliban rule coincided with the Allied invasion of Afghanistan. The film is his usual blend of fiction and documentary and is a disturbing account of a woman’s disappearance into a hellish trap. It was afforded a Presidential screening at the White House, even if Makhmalbaf was no fan of Bush. After years of conflict with the Iranian authorities he moved to Paris, where, along with Marjane Satrapi, he was to the forefront in protesting the disputed re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Entre les murs (Laurent Cantet – France, 2008)
François Bégaudeau’s third novel – a semi-autobiographical tale of a teacher in an inner city Paris school – looked like it would be difficult to film. Laurent Cantet got around it by getting Bégaudeau to play the teacher himself. The film is surprisingly close to the book, charting a whole school year, with the hero getting embroiled in petty squabbles with his charges – and one or two not so petty ones – and he tries valiantly to drill them in the correct usage of classical French. Largely improvised, the film is a hugely enjoyable and persuasive portrait of modern French society, the sort normally ignored by the bourgeois-obsessed French cinema. And seeing the teenage cast whisked around the world from Cannes to New York for screenings was a delight.
Match Point (Woody Allen – UK/USA, 2006)
The last person you would expect to see on this list is Woody Allen, so far has his star fallen from the glory days of the 1970s and 1980s (even his so-so comedies from the 90s seem a distant echo now). But Woody reinvented for one last great film, which was the start of his self-imposed European exile. It was an unusual departure for him, a chilly Chabrolien thriller in which arriviste tennis professional Jonathan Rhys-Meyers finds he must choose between dull but wealthy Emily Mortimer and sexy but penurious Scarlett Johansson. It’s a dark and disturbing film, peppered with a wickedly witty script in which Woody surprises us with his ability for ventriloquism of the Home Counties bourgeoisie. The run of form didn’t last however, Woody’s British hiatus continued with two of his worst films ever, Scoop and Cassandra’s Dream. But Match Point is one for posterity.
Morvern CallarI (Lynne Ramsey – UK, 2002)
It doesn’t quite have the bleak grace of Ramsey’s debut Ratcatcher but this adaptation of Alan Warner’s novel is still a fine film. Samantha Morton plays a young woman who following the suicide of her boyfriend, publishes his manuscript under her own name, and, like Juliette Binoche in Three Colours: Blue, enjoys a new-found freedom. The only question one must ask is why Ramsey hasn’t made more films.
Un prophète (Jacques Audiard – France, 2009)
Jacques Audiard cemented his position as a great of French cinema to rival his legendary father Michel with this film, which in any other year would have easily swept the Palme d’Or at Cannes. Tahar Rahim is a revelation as a young Arab prisoner who reluctantly falls under the wing of Corsican gangsters. He then plays them off against his fellow Muslim inmates who naturally view him as a traitor. A superbly gritty portrait of a thug-in-the-making and of atavistic survival.
Grizzly Man (Werner Herzog – USA, 2005)
Werner Herzog became famous again this decade with a string of brilliantly essayistic documentaries. Grizzly Man was the most famous of them. It is a cinematic post-mortem of Timothy Treadwell, a failed actor turned ecologist who lived among grizzly bears for thirteen summers before being mauled and eaten by one along with his girlfriend in October 2003. Herzog is blessed by Treadwell’s obsessive documenting of his work in video diaries and a large number of witnesses give their testimonies. It’s ultimately a sympathetic portrayal of a troubled soul, even if, as Herzog concludes, Treadwell was a Promethean transgressor who was only ever going to end the way he did.
Let the Right One In (Tomas Alfredson – Sweden, 2008)
It may not have had the stratospheric success of Twilight but Alfredson’s vampire film and John Ajvide Lindqvist’s original novel, was a surprise international sleeper hit, driven mainly by Internet word-of-mouth. It’s a surprisingly elegant piece, beautifully framed and shot, as if Michael Haneke had undertaken to make a teen movie. The film tells the flowering relationship between twelve-year-old Oskar who is tormented by bullies in suburban Stockholm in the early 1980s and Eli, a anguished child vampire whose father kills young children to feed her. It’s a sad and sometimes disturbing tale, unlikely to be bettered by the American remake next year.
The Lives of Others (Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck – Germany, 2006)
Von Donnersmarck’s smash hit may indeed have the fatal flaw identified by Stasiland author Anna Funder – that there never existed a single Stasi operative who spared one of his subjects. But that aside the film is a powerful look at the squalid cruelty operated by the GDR state apparatus. It was made all the more poignant by the death soon afterwards of Ulrich Mühe, who here plays the renegade Stasi agent who becomes fascinated by Georg Dreyermann, the playwright he is surveying. Mühe had himself been spied on in a similar way in real life, at the instigation of his actress wife, who was presumably working under duress. The Lives of Others is a technical and dramatic tour de force that pays fitting tribute to the hundreds of thousands of people whose lives were destroyed by Stasi surveillance. One of the better winners of the Best Foreign Film Oscar too.
Bullet in the Head (Jaime Rosales – Spain, 2008)
Catalan director Rosales followed up his arthouse hit Soledad with a more ambitious piece. Inspired by the ETA assassination of two Spanish undercover policemen in France in 2007, Bullet in the Head is shot entirely in long-range shots, often through windows and doors, with only scraps of dialogue heard. The action builds up in cool, detached fashion, with the audience implicated in the voyeurism of the crime. A great companion piece to Coppola’s The Conversation.
Mesrine L’Ennemi public Nº1/Mesrine L’Instinct de mort (Jean-François Richet – France/Canada, 2008)
The French have always had more than a sneaking regard for former bankrobber Jacques Mesrine, gunned down, almost certainly unlawfully, by police in 1979. So it wasn’t a surprise that this double biopic starring Vincent Cassel in a César-winning role was a big hit. And the success was replicated abroad. Richet, who previously directed a highly regarded remake of Assault on Precinct 13, directs with aplomb and the film has a stellar cast, none of whom detracts from the power of the work. It’s superb entertainment and also a highly intelligent crime film, written by Abdel Raouf Dafri, who was also responsible for Un prophète and the Wire-esque TV series La commune.
Into Great Silence - Philip Gröning (Germany - 2005)
A 160-minute documentary about the silent monks of La Grande Chartreuse near Grenoble would not set many people’s hearts racing but Into Great Silence is a surprisingly engrossing experience. The film follows the monks in their everyday life over the course of six months. It details prayer, silent contemplation, the manufacture of habits and other essentials and, of course, the famous green liqueur, which is the monastery’s main source of income. A measure of Gröning’s Herculean patience is the fact that permission to film was granted only 16 years after he first requested it. He’s the only outsider ever to have been allowed inside the walls of the monastery and he filmed all on his own. If ever a film deserved the tag ‘unique’ this is surely it.