Monday, December 20, 2010

Underachievement Films of the Year

It wasn't the greatest of years for cinema, to be honest, and it's hard to figure why, unless the planets pulled sufficiently at once to put filmmakers from Buenos Aires to Tokyo to Rome sufficiently off their game. There were certainly no more bad films than usual out there this year (though certainly more than usual involving George Clooney) but few stood out. There were plenty of competent modest works made by up-and-coming directors and more established ones (even Woody Allen weighed in with a surprisingly decent film). But the films that will last can probably be counted on one hand. That said, all the films in the top ten here are worth a look and more than a few from the list of the rest at the bottom of the page. As ever in this end-of-year list my criterion for inclusion is a French release this year, hence the omission of certain films, such as Mike Leigh's Another Year (not yet released here) and Lucretia Martel's The Headless Woman (here last year), that might otherwise have made it. There are also films missing that I missed - Yorgos Lanthimos' Dogtooth is one I would love to have seen but it just didn't happen for one reason or another. There are films that aren't there because I thought they were awful cack (yes, I'm thinking of you, Inception) and finally, there are films that may not have been released elsewhere this year, putting me either ahead or behind the time on that count.

Enjoy reading and watching and feel free to argue strongly about anything that you think should or shouldn't be there.

1. Police, Adjective (Corneliu Porumboiu - Romania)

Corneliu Porumboiu surfed the wave of the New Romanian cinema in 2006, when he won the Caméra d’Or at Cannes for his first film 12:08 East of Bucharest. Based on his own experiences working as a cameraman in local TV, the film was a witty political comedy, which queried, in mock-heroic fashion, whether there actually was a revolutionary movement in a small Romanian town before Ceausescu abdicated at 12:08 on the 21st of December 1989. It played with themes of bravado and bragaddoccio familiar to every liberation movement, and its good-natured puncturing of faux-heroism was best exemplified by the film taking place during the none-too-momentous 16th anniversary of the revolution.

Porumboiu returned to Cannes last year with his second film Police, Adjective, a similarly astute examination of the legacy of the Securitate police state in contemporary Romania. Dragos Bucur plays Cristi, a young conscientious small-town cop, who is entrusted with tailing a trio of schoolkids who smoke hash during their lunchbreak. His boss and the public prosecutor both want a bust and the kids sent down but Cristi is reluctant to wilfully destroy the lives of the youngsters with a certain prison sentence when he is naively convinced that the drug laws will soon be overhauled. Cristi also suspects the older brother of one of the kids of trafficking, thereby giving him an extra incentive to bide his time.

It all sounds like a low-rent version of The Wire, and there are superficial similarities with the HBO show (it is not too surprising either that HBO’s Romanian arm was involved in financing this film). But the scale is much smaller, with the focus firmly on Cristi, a droopy but sympathetic figure, a Bartleby-in-the-making, who questions everything – the law, his superiors, the grammatical exigencies of the Romanian Academy that his schoolteacher wife tells him about. It would be a stretch to say Cristi is idealistic but he is responding naturally to what he perceives to be the absurdity and the injustice of the system he is forced to work in.

Cristi’s boss, police chief Anghelache is a formidable, malevolent figure played with great brio by Vlad Ivanov, the abortionist from 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days. He is the ultimate arbiter, who holds the fate of all, his terrified employees and the townspeople alike, in his grasp. The showdown scene between him and Cristi is a masterpiece of dark sardonic comedy. Police, Adjective is an improbably gripping drama, filmed at a languid pace and with a lightness of touch that has been compared to Jim Jarmusch. But unlike the watery brew of Jarmusch’s work, in Porumboiu’s films, the characters have no refuge from contemporary society, nor from history itself.

2. Des hommes et des dieux (Xavier Beauvois – France)

Beauvois, the great autodidact of French cinema, turns his focus once again to an enclosed group of men, following his engaging police drama from 2006 Le petit lieutenant. This time, the subject matter is the sombre tale of the Tibherine monks, a community of French Trappist brethren based in a village in the Atlas Mountains in Algeria, who were massacred, allegedly by Islamists, in 1996, at the height of the Algerian Civil War. Beauvois, a decidedly non-spiritual filmmaker, is at ease documenting the artisanal day-to-day life of the monastery, with many sequences recalling Philip Gröning’s masterly documentary Into Great Silence, about the Carthusian monks of La Grande Chartreuse.

The monks enjoy a good relationship with the Muslim villagers, not least because of the free medical clinic they run, but they are threatened by the advent of Islamic fundamentalism. A pair of Croatian contractors get their throats cut at a nearby building site and then an armed group of FIS jihadists turns up at the monastery on Christmas Eve, demanding medicine for one of their wounded. They go away empty-handed but the monks are left with a quandary, whether they should leave for their own safety, abandoning the villagers or to stand their ground, putting themselves at risk and also inviting accusations of colonial arrogance. The latter is the view of the local police chief, who wants them gone. He sees them as a legacy of French imperialism and he also would have them out of the way for him to prosecute his intended dirty war against the FIS. The villagers, however, saddled with unbearable poverty and terrified at the onslaught of radicalism, want them to stay.

Given the fate of the monks is well known to the viewer – or certainly in France, at least – the film plays out as a sombre foretelling of their doom to come. The monks vote to stay, though there are some who clearly do not want to. The cast does a superb job laying bare the terrified vulnerability of unremarkable men, and one has to hand it to Beauvois for having the nous to choose one of the frothiest of French actors, Lambert Wilson, to play the abbot Christian. Christian is a frail, bookish presence, but a man who shows stirring fortitude when forced to take a stand against the menace he and his community faces. The film builds to its inevitable climax with an intensely moving last-supper scene set to the strains of Swan Lake, before the monks who fail to escape are taken away as hostages by the Islamists. Controversy still hangs over the death of the monks, whose heads were discovered at an FIS encampment several months after their kidnapping. In recent years, fresh allegations claim the Algerian security forces accidentally killed them in a botched raid and then dressed the killings up to make them look like they were executions. The order has since decamped across the border to Morocco. Des hommes et des dieux is a simple, beautifully-mounted film about one of the countless tragic episodes of Algeria’s bloody civil war.

3. Ajami (Scandar Copti & Yaron Shani – Israel)

The fact that the Oscar-nominated Ajami was co-directed by the Palestino-Israeli Copti and the Jewish Shani might give the impression that the film is one of those humanistic reconciliatory dramas so beloved of fok who prefer to see the Palestine-Israel situation as an unfortunate falling-out between neighbours who really should know better. Ajami is however made of darker matter and does not easily bend to ‘why-can’t-we-all-get-along’ flummery. The film is set in the eponymous impoverished neighbourhood in Jaffa, home largely to Palestino-Israelis, and beset by both organised and petty crime. The film follows a number of interconnecting stories, a local family that is the target of extortionists; a teenager from the West Bank, who has entered Israel illegally in an attempt to earn money to pay for his mother’s operation; an Israeli cop whose brother has gone missing and a small-time drug dealer whose Jewish girlfriend doesn’t go down well in the neighbourhood.

Ajami is a straightforward enough crime film, filmed with all the energy and streetwise verve of a young Scorsese. It also casts a light on a community that is largely ignored by even the more liberal wing of Israeli filmmaking, and also on that community’s own ambivalent relationship with its brethren from the occupied territorities. The film is neither a plea for tolerance nor a polemical insistence that inter-communal relations are beyond repair. It is, rather, a hard-nosed portrayal of a marginalised community, a film that is not afraid to show the Israeli police humiliated by the Arab locals, something that hardly went down well with some members of the current Israeli government. In a further twist, a recent attempt by Jewish residents of Jaffa to restrict muezzin’s calls in Ajami because of noise complaints is strangely reminiscent of one episode in the film.

4. The Robber (Benjamin Heisenberg – Austria)

Based on the true story of Johann Rettenberger, a marathon runner who moonlighted as a bankrobber, Heisenberg’s second film is a fascinating unflinching portrayal of a man tracked. Rettenberger leaves prison at the start of the film, having gained the approval of the authorities with his assiduous training and endurance running. He continues this upon his release and becomes a minor star, coming from nowhere to win the Vienna marathon. Neither, however, does he give up robbing banks. We are never told why, but back-story doesn’t really matter. What does is Rettenberger’s relentless resistence to captivity. His desire for freedom is instinctive, animalistic and, at times frightening. There is more than a touch of Peter Handke's The Goalkeeper’s Fear of the Penalty, about The Robber, and the shadow of Jean-Pierre Melville also looms over proceedings. It’s a stark, pessimistic, but deeply admirable film by a young director who looks to have a great future ahead of him.

5. Nostalgia for the Light (Patricio Guzmán – Chile)

The Atacama Desert was the centre of world attention for a few days in October as thirty-three miners were lifted to safety after more than two months underground. Chilean president Sebastian Piñera and his government wasted no opportunity to turn the rescue into a grand media event. It was a canny piece of stage management that ensured a better public image for Chile’s right-wing leader than the last one of a similar political hue, Augusto Pinochet.

Patricio Guzmán was a victim of Pinochet’s regime, being forced to flee Chile after the 1973 coup d’état that toppled the government of his friend Salvador Allende. Since his return to his native land, he has chronicled the dark days of Chilean democracy’s demise in documentaries such as The Battle of Chile and Salvador Allende. In his latest film he heads to the Atacama, indulging the passion for astronomy he has held since he was a child, and filming and interviewing scientists at the world-famous La Silla and Paranal observatories. But the Atacama Desert is also where a number of Pinochet’s victims were unceremoniously buried. Guzmán meets some of their relatives, including an oprhaned daughter who now works at the observatory as an astronomer and who reminds us that the living and the disappeared are all essentially stardust.

One thing that strikes you about the relatives (something I’ve also noticed with the relatives of the Disappeared in Argentina) is their dignity. They are holders of a righteous anger but you never get the sense they are consumed by bitterness or a thirst for revenge. Though they have never attained anything like the justice they deserve, they have always comported themselves infinitely better than those who aligned themselves with Pinochet’s regime. The latter are people such as President Piñera’s brother José, the General’s labour minister, whose website continues to use a 1973 editorial by the Economist as a threadbare rationale for the defence of fascism and state-sanctioned murder in Chile. Nostalgia for the Light is a gentle but angry work, a vital corrective to a media mogul’s government that would try to use the rescue of the workers it has always held in contempt to absolve itself of its historical sins against the people of Chile.

6.A Serious Man (Joel and Ethan Coen – USA)

Bar a few nods here and there, the Coens have rarely touched on Judaism in their films. They seem archetypal examples of what Greil Marcus once diagnosed in Bob Dylan – the Jewish American desperate at all costs to integrate himself into the goy mainstream. This is what makes A Serious Man such an exotic, and pleasant surprise. From its non-sequitur opening scene in the Polish-Ukrainian shtetl to a suburban setting in the late 60s that is so square it might as well be the 50s, it feels like nothing the Coens, or anyone else, have done. You imagine they had this in mind when choosing their cast entirely from unknowns or seasoned character actors. That said, there are familiar Coen themes and tropes in there, not least the title character, Larry Gopnik, played with magnanimous angst by Michael Stuhlbarg, who battles against forces trying to deprive him of tenure at his university, WASP neighbours that might just be vicious anti-semites and his wife, who, well, just takes him for a ride. A wonderfully entertaining, occasionally disturbing film that even has the outlandish audacity to suggest that a Korean student could possibly have flunked a maths exam. Yeah, pull the other one…

7. My Joy (Sergei Loznitsa – Russia)

Celebrated documentary filmmaker Loznitsa moves into fiction for the first time, for an enigmatic yet entrancing film about a trucker’s violent progress across Russia to deliver a shipment of flour. If it were cheerier you might call it picaresque. Georgy’s adventures are interlarded with episodes from the Soviet era, which may or may not have a bearing on goings-on in the current day, and Loznitsa mercilessly uproots the orientation of his narrative on more than one occasion. Closer to the brooding existential cinema of Andrei Zvyagintsev or Pavel Lungin than Alexander Sokurov’s spiritual interrogations, My Joy can be hard to watch for those of frail disposition. Loznitsa has however managed to fashion something of wonder out of bleak material.

8. Alamar (Pedro González-Rubio – Mexico)

A five-year-old Italian boy travels to Mexico to visit his father, whom he has never met before. The father, Jorge, subsists happily with his own father, on the Banco Chinchorro, the world’s second-largest coral reef. Jorge shows young Natan how to fish and cook and introduces him to the manifold wildlife of the Mexican coast. The sequences are all filmed with a natural matter-of-factness and the film given a documentary verisimilitude by the knowledge that Jorge and Natan are father and son in real life too. It’s no surprise that González-Rubio comes from a documentary background and the scenes he depicts with such a benevolent languour provide a thrilling frisson of discovery for even the most seasoned of parents, fishermen or naturalists. A film to watch with your kids, who would be sure to love it too.

9. The Social Network (David Fincher – USA)

This was the biggest surprise of the year for me. I have never been a fan of the slick vacuity of Fincher’s films (though I admit Fight Club and Zodiac had their moments) and Aaron Sorkin’s peddling of wet dreams for well-meaning beltway liberals had, for me, all the urgency of an Internet Explorer upgrade. And then it was about Facebook, the biggest pricks in the room at this point; you figure that Google chose their motto to be ‘don’t be evil’ because they saw Zuckerberg and Co. coming sharp around that bend. So I wasn’t completely sure how this could turn out to be a good thing at all.

But The Social Network works, strangely, as a piece of historical film (and we all know how quickly things begin to look old in the world of technology and the internet). Fincher’s restrains his crasser instincts and even his inability to resist filtering his images to a Rembrandt dunnish tone that seems designed to mask the dirt in the corner of the frame. Sorkin’s dialogue zings – a little too much, but it does the job – and Jessie Eisenberg is a better example of the Mark Zuckerberg we all know than Mark Zuckerberg probably is. Eisenberg’s avatar is a nerd from hell, supercilious, socially retarded, desperate to be loved by all those he despises, but brilliant and as ruthless in his excision of troublesome relationships as he is cavalier in his attitude towards anything beyond the limited purview of the matter in hand.

It certainly helps the Zucker-Eisen-berg case that almost everyone else is either 1.0-dim, 1.0-out of touch or even more of a dislikeable 2.0-muppet than he is. The only truly admirable characters in the film are female – and there aren’t many females in The Social Network that one can plausibly call ‘characters’. The film may also rely a bit too heavily on the jilted Eduardo Saverin’s side of the story and Lawrence Lessig has detected Hollywood vindictiveness in the negative portrayal of the ebulliently enterprising Sean Parker. But The Social Network is a decent, instructive film, a reminder that dim elites are always bound to be usurped by smarter elites and that nice guys don’t even get the honour of finishing last.

10. Tehran (Nader T. Homayoun – Iran)

Iranian cinema, the star of the 90s, has retreated from the international spotlight in the Ahmadinejad years as its luminaries have either faced exile (Mohsen Makhmalbaf) or taken refuge in increasingly tiresome formal obsession (Abbas Kiarostami). Only Jafar Panahi and Bahman Ghobadi have kept the flame alive internationally for Iran with their socially engaged cinema. But now Panahi has been locked up by the Islamic regime and banned from making films for twenty years, while Ghobadi was forced into exile after his fiancée Roxana Siberi was expelled after being imprisoned on charges of spying. On his way out Ghobadi cemented his fall from favour with Nobody Knows About Persian Cats, a drama about clandestine rock bands in Iran. It was a pleasing if uneven film, as might be expected from one that had to be shot in secret and on the hoof to circumvent the ban on rock music in the Islamic Republic. But it also signalled the end of a golden era of Iranian cinema, a cinema that appears to be no longer capable of flourishing under the stifling conservatism of the diminutive Twelver Ahmadinejad’s government.

Thus it was a relief to discover Homayoun’s Tehran, which had all the spark of the films that first came to international prominence in the early 90s, and which also explored new territory that had previously been intimated by the likes of Panahi and Abelfozl Jalili. It tells the tale of Ibrahim, a migrant from the provinces who rents a new-born baby from a people-trafficker to give him an edge begging in the streets of the capital. Things take a turn for the worse and it inevitably becomes complicated for Ibrahim. For those that know Iranian cinema and its codes and conventions designed to skirt government restrictions, Tehran is a startlingly candid piece of realism. It delves into the grim, murky underworld of migrant workers, who live three or four to a room, and who survive by recourse to practices that are not only forbidden but their existence denied by the Iranian authorities. It remains a mystery how Homayoun got the film made but as it is we should be thankful for one of the few fictional documents of a crucial period of Iranian history to have made it all the way to the West.

And others that weren’t too bad at all:

La terre de la folie (Luc Mollet – France)

Shirin/Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami – Iran/France/Italy)

Disgrace (Steve Jacobs – Australia/South Africa)

Mother (Bong Joon-ho – South Korea)

Nobody Knows About Persian Cats (Bahman Ghobadi – Iran)

Precious (Lee Daniels – USA)

Weaving Girl (Wang Quanan – China)

Bad Lieutenant – Port of Call: New Orleans (Werner Herzog – USA/Germany)

Ander (Roberto Castón – Euskadi/Spain)

The Ghost (Roman Polanski – USA/France)

Optical Illusions (Cristián Jiménez – Chile)

White Material (Claire Denis – France)

Después de la revolución (Vincent Dieutre – France)

Daddy Longlegs (Josh and Benny Safdie – USA)

Life During Wartime (Todd Solondz – USA)

Film : Socialisme (Jean-Luc Godard – France)

Like You Know It All (Hong Sang-soo – South Korea)

Green Zone (Paul Greengrass – USA)

Dirty Diaries (Various – Sweden)

Tales from the Golden Age Parts 1 & 2 (Various – Romania)

L’illusioniste (Sylvain Chomet – France/UK)

The Mouth of the Wolf (Pietro Marcello – Italy)

Benda Bilili! (Renaud Barret, Florent de la Tullaye – France)

Vénus Noire (Abdelketif Kechiche – France)

The Housemaid (Im Sang-soo – South Korea)

Rubber (Quentin Dupieux – France)

The Other Guys (Adam McKay – USA)

To Die Like a Man (João Pedro Rodrigues – Portugal)

Fair Game (Doug Liman - USA)

Fix ME (Rael Andoni - Palestine)

Draquila – L’Italia che trema (Sabina Guzzanti – Italy)

Mysteries of Lisbon (Raúl Ruiz – Portugal)

Uncle Boonmee, Who Can Remember His Past Lives (Apichatpong Weerasethakul – Thailand)

Submarino (Thomas Vinterberg – Denmark)

Poetry (Lee Chang-dong – South Korea)

You Will Meet a Tall, Dark Stranger (Woody Allen – USA/UK)

Kaboom (Greg Araki – USA)

Homme au bain (Christophe Honoré – France)

Honey (Semih Kaplanoğlu – Turkey)

Toy Story 3 (Lee Unkrich – USA)

Four Lions (Chris Morris – UK)

The City Below (Christoph Hochhäusler – Germany)