Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Films of the Year - The Best and the Worst

After a disappointing year in 2010, this year was considerably better at the movies. There were a number of big disappointments (I'm thinking mainly of Terrence Malick, Lynne Ramsay, Gus Van Sant, Steve McQueen and the Coen brothers) and some recently flourishing national cinemas (Taiwan and Germany in particular) were noticeably absent but the films on show were for the most part a diverse, intelligent, inquisitive and often entertaining lot. France continued to produce some excellent films and amid exceptionally demanding circumstances Iranian cinema was once again to the forefront of cinematic brilliance after a few years in abeyance. Even Hollywood got in on the act with the uproarous recession comedy Bridesmaids and a number of smart films based on real-life sporting scenarios, in Moneyball and The Fighter.

As ever, my criteria for inclusion are a cinema release in France before the last week of the year. Hence there will be a number of films in here that might not have made it your way just yet; there will also be others missing that either were released here last year or have not yet been shown. Among the latter category include Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; A Dangerous Method and Aki Kaurismäki's Le Havre.

1. A Separation (Asghar Farhadi - Iran)

Asghar Farhadi’s fifth film gets the ball rolling early with a brilliantly simple title sequence. A photocopier’s senser glides across a black field, making copies of passports and other official documents. There’s a slightly sinister ominousness to the sequence which proceeds with only the whirr of the machine for a soundtrack. We don’t know who the documents belong to but the niggling suspicion is that having your documents copied in a country like Iran means good news is not in store.

The separation of the title is between Naader and Simin, a middle-class couple from Tehran. Simin wants a divorce because her husband refuses to emigrate with her because he wants to care for his father, who has Alzheimer’s. In the opening scene the couple present their case to a judge, filmed from the judge’s point of view. It’s a device familiar from Iranian films of the past and has a Brechtian effect in that the characters are effectively addressing the audience itself.

Having failed to obtain the divorce, the couple decide to separate. They hire a working-class woman Razieh to take care of the elderly father but after an argument between Naader and Razieh takes a tragic turn, the law once again intervenes. A Separation is similar to Farhadi’s previous two films - About Elly and Fireworks Wednesday - in the sense that the characters try to carve out zones of autonomy for themselves in which they don’t have to deal with the State. It’s a subtle critique of the Islamic Republic, which looms fearsomely but is never directly criticised - for obvious reasons. Simin wants to leave the country, a recourse taken by an increasing amount of Iranian university graduates, and an out-of-court settlement may be the best option both for the middle-class Naader and Razieh’s young indebted family.

The brilliant intensity of A Separation as a drama would alone make it the best film of the year but what edges it into masterpiece territory is the battery of dramatic and cinematic devices employed by Farhadi and the constant needling of the audience to question the motives and veracity of all involved. It comes at a particularly testing time for Iranian filmmakers and Farhadi has managed to avoid the fate of Jafar Panahi, Mohamed Rasoulof and Bahman Gobdadi, all of whom have been persecuted by the Islamic regime. But Farhadi’s films are implicitly resistant (particularly Fireworks Wednesday, which incorporates a popular contemporary festival that never ceases to infuriate the Mullahs). He is also somebody that has studied closely his country’s cinema over the past two decades, a cinema that has forever been forced into new resourcefulness by the strictures placed on it. It’s not too much of an exaggeration to say A Separation is a distillation of practically every great Iranian film of that era. That is why it is film of the year.

A Separation trailer:

2. The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu (Andrei Ujica - Romania)

Andrei Ujica’s Marker-esque portrait of the former Romanian dictator proceeds without any captions, commentary or interviews to guide the viewer. The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu is pieced together entirely from archive footage - much of it officially filmed for the Romanian Communist regime - giving it a wonderful strangeness, as if a ghostly parallel history is being played out in front of our eyes.

We catch glimpses of de Gaulle, Dubcek, Brezhnev, Nixon, Honecker, Queen Elizabeth II, Carter and later Gorbachev over the three hours’ duration, going through the official motions with the most versatile despotic ally of his generation. It’s a performative fiction that mirrors the queues of mourners - filmed in striking black and white - that file into the building where Ceaucescu’s predecessor as Communist Party General-Secretary Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej’s body lies in state in 1965.

There is no hint of the brutality of Ceausescu’s regime - that presumably would be well enough known to most viewers - instead we get the official reality, the ‘autobiography’ as it were, which extends to official home movies - filmed for Party consumption only - showing the Ceausescu family at play in summer and winter. The effect is jarring, at once hilarious and monstrous, through which the history of a viciously squalid regime is seen as a bad dream mounted with a cast of thousands, many of them illustrious, and a state-monopoly cinematic apparatus. That might make the film sound more flippant than it is; though Ujica’s narrative is largely unjudgemental, he allows the cleavage between the images and the history known to the viewer do the talking.

The film, significantly, is book-ended by footage, shot on video that looks even grainier two decades on, of the ‘trial’ of Ceausescu and his wife Elena. It’s a counterpoint to everything else, a process that is every bit as dubious and fictive as the state archive footage’s Stalinist narrative, but which nonetheless delivers an abrupt historical verdict - the execution of the presidential couple. The do-it-yourself nature of the filming reflects the crumbling of official authority as the Ceausescus find themselves at the mercy of a lowly band of revolutionaries and it also points to a new era of filmmaking, where the edifice of the media begins to experience the wearing away of the once firm ground beneath it.

The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu trailer:

3. The Turin Horse (Béla Tarr - Hungary)

Béla Tarr retires from filmmaking at the age of 56 and leaves us with a fascinating conundrum. The Turin Horse takes its title, and ostensibly its theme, from the horse in the city of the same name whose cruel treatment at the hand of its owner one day in 1899 tipped Friedrich Nietzsche into insanity. A voiceover relates the anecdote at the start and says with what might at first be mistaken for undue seriousness, ‘what happened to the horse is not known’. The focus then switches to a semi-lame nineteenth-century peasant driving a horse through a storm. Back home, he and his daughter live out a taciturn existence, eating the same meal of a boiled potato every day, speaking only when things appear to be going wrong. And things begin to go wrong over the course of the film’s six days, inexorably, inexplicably and disastrously.

Tarr’s style and palette are so finely honed by now that it would be hard to date any of his films made since 1987’s Damnation. He cuts even The Werckmeister Harmonies’ parsimonious number of shots - in that film, he used only 38 different set-ups. This time it is 30. The relatively cramped sets mean Tarr’s familiar elaborate pans, zooms and travelling shots are less expansive than usual but Fred Keleman’s monochrome cinematography is at once gorgeous and unsettlingly claustrophobic. The film’s spare and repetitive narrative bears multiple readings but having watched it a second time, it appears less enigmatic than at first sight. Much of the explication seems to be a red herring - including one suspects the title and the incident that forms it. The Turin Horse may even be an unlikely, achingly cruel dark comedy. Tarr, in his retirement, is to set up a film school in Zagreb, and he already has commitments from the likes of Wim Wenders, Gus Van Sant and Aki Kaurismäki to teach there. If he indeed makes no more films, it may not matter so much - there’s so much to mull over, watch and re-watch and obsess over in the dozen or so of his films that we’ll be kept going for years to come.

The Turin Horse trailer:

4. L'Apollonide - Souvenirs de la maison close (Bertrand Bonello - France)

Films set in brothels tend to veer from the crassly romantic to the piously moral but Bonello’s portrayal of a fin de siècle Parisian maison close is lucid, bracing and unsentimental. Framed by the horrific facial disfigurement of one of the prostitutes by a client - a scene returned to a number of times in increasingly hellish flashback - L’Apolonnide is a frank portrayal of what is essentially a place of work. We see the women entertaining their johns, smoking opium, doing medical check-ups, attending to their ablutions and mostly being bored. The situations with clients are by turns cheerful, uncomfortable and demeaning. In a shrewd move, Bonello implicates his own profession in the exploitation by having a string of contemporary male French film directors (Jacques Nolot, Xavier Beauvois, Damien Odoul) play clients.

L’Apolonnide has all the trappings of a lush costume drama and is a beautifully mounted film. But despite its clear discomfort with the world it depicts it is not coy - the film is both sensuous and sexy while never losing sight of the darker aspects of the trade. Ultimately, Bonello is ambivalent on the matter of maisons closes; for all the exploitation they engendered and facilitated, he suggests, via a haunting epilogue, they were still preferable to the more dangerous reality of today’s France, where prostitutes walk the streets, forced out by the 1945 law that closed the brothels. It’s a judgement that many will cavil with but it’s fully in the spirit of an honest and dramatically unrelenting film that acquits itself far better than most others treating the same subject matter have done.

L'Apollonide: Souvenirs de la maison close trailer:

5. Boxing Gym & Crazy Horse (Frederick Wiseman - USA/France)

The master of anthropological documentaries, Frederick Wiseman released two films this year, both of which offer the usual warts-and-all look at institutions and the people that work in them. The better of them is Boxing Gym, which shows a year in the life of a modest gym in Austin, Texas. The gym’s owner is Richard Lord, a quiet, unassuming forty-something who is one of those documentary subjects you inevitably fall in love with. He hosts hundreds of members per year, who range from budding fighters to students to young mothers, who train alongside their baby baskets. There’s no divergence from Wiseman’s usual non-obtrusive style. There is no commentary and no interviews direct to camera; the meat of the film is long takes of people working, dressing, sparring. It’s a film with an almost perfectly even rhythm that a lot of people might find boring but Wiseman’s brilliance at filming humans at work and play leaves you with a warm feeling inside. Yet another addition to the pantheon of great boxing films, that most cinematic of sports.

The other film couldn’t be more different, even if the basic premise is the same. Crazy Horse is a portrait of the legendary Paris cabaret of the same name, Wiseman’s third film about a French institution following his documentaries on the Comédie française and the Opéra de Paris. The obvious focus is the nude dancers in both rehearsal and performance, overlooked by the famously perfectionist choreographer Philippe Decouflé. But we also see the more mundane aspects of the night club - managerial meetings, prepping at both the bar and front of house, costume and hairdressing. As with Boxing Gym, many will be nonplussed by the subject, as I admit I was before watching, but Wiseman’s eye is so sure he could film a team of housepainters over a year and still make it interesting. One of the more frustrating things about the film is the dancers aren’t interviewed and have few speaking parts so they remain as anonymous as they are at showtime. Whether this was a choice on the part of Wiseman or Crazy Horse itself is unclear, but the film could have done with a greater variety of voices. That quibble aside, it’s an enjoyable if slight film with the bonus of a guest appearance by Philippe Katerine, composer of the Crazy’s current hokey theme song and probably the coolest Frenchman alive. Anyone interested in watching either of Wiseman’s films would be advised not to pass up the opportunity to see them in the cinema - the 81-year-old is obstinately resistant to new formats and none of his 41 films is as yet available on DVD.

Boxing Gym trailer:

Crazy Horse trailer (NSFW)

6. Good Bye (Mohammad Rasoulof - Iran) & This Is Not a Film (Jafar Panahi - Iran)

Two films by Iranian directors who have suffered the full force of the Islamic Republic’s repression in the past two years. Both Mohamad Rasoulof and Jafar Panahi were sentenced to six years in prison, on typically nebulous charges of ‘crimes against the State’. The response of each to their ordeals was to deliver parting shots in the form of films that are either incredibly brave or reckless, depending on your point of view.

Good Bye treats of a human-rights lawyer, Noura, who has been banned from working by the regime, presumably after the Green Revolution clampdown. Having been banned from making films for twenty years, Rasoulof filmed Good Bye clandestinely, much of it in interiors dimly-lit with an icy blue filter. Noura’s daily life is one of harassment by authorities - the secret police arrive at her apartment to do a search while her mother obliviously watches TV, a sharp metaphor for the functioning of a police state in 2011 - and of bureaucratic frustration - to do anything she must get signed authorisation from her husband, despite being a once accredited lawyer herself. If anything, the evils of the Islamic Republic are more palpable in this deadening infantilisation of its citizens than in outright brutal repression, though that too is hinted at.

Not surprisingly, Good Bye is a bleak film, like watching a door slam shut in slow motion - as, surely, Rasoulof must have felt while making it. But it adapts its slow pace and inquisitive mood well to what is in effect a real-life thriller. It’s hardly entertainment, but gripping nonetheless. Panahi’s This Is Not a Film, on the other hand, is made with an unexpectedly light touch. Not that Panahi has been incapable of humour or lightness in his previous politically-charged films but it is surprising in what is a video-diary filmed during a year when he was under house-arrest and was anxiously awaiting his fate as his case went through the courts. Filmed by documentarist and co-director Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, Panahi storyboards on his living-room floor a film he has been unable to make due to the ban imposed on him. He also analyses scenes from his earlier films, providing a unique masterclass that is conducted with a refreshing lack of pomposity. Periodically he calls his lawyer and sees his prospects of freedom fade. His only company, apart from Mirtahmasb, is an enormous pet lizard, who drapes himself across the sofa and bookcases, and a young student filling in as the building’s superintendent, who Panahi films on his iPhone, making a brief, probably illegal, foray out into the lift and down to the building’s forecourt as festive fireworks pop in the background.

If one charge can be levelled against Iranian filmmakers in recent years, it is that they appear to have retreated into their own social class for their films - only Asghar Farhadi’s work acknowledges the very real fissures in Iranian society - but, given the constrictions they face, especially Panahi, who, when not in prison, has been unable to leave his house, it’s understandable, if regrettable. In many respects, the censorship they face - formal and informal, sometimes negotiable, often emphatically not so - has made Iranian filmmakers prodigiously inventive and enabled them to develop a cinema of wonderful stylistic and dialectic sophistication. I have argued before that Iranian cinema, unlike most others, is one that derives its richness from the fact it is contingent on real-time history. The fate of Panahi and Rasoulof as well as a number of others suggests that the perspectives for such inventiveness are narrowing, even as Iranian cinema regains the verve that made it among the most exciting in the world.

Good Bye trailer:

This Is Not a Film trailer:

7. Bridesmaids (Paul Feig - USA)

The gross-out/dumb comedy is the last real redoubt of Hollywood excellence. Largely unpoliced by concerns of taste, respectability or target demographics, it ploughs its own furrow and some unusual stuff often slips in under the radar. Some of it is faintly subversive (the Farrelly brothers, Adam McKay), some reactionary (Judd Apatow) and some surreally barmy (Dodgeball) but, in its shambling way, it is more usually more interesting than the drearily ‘legitimate’ comedies than come out of Hollywood.

Bridesmaids breaks new ground by being one of the first gross-out comedies made from a female perspective. Annie (played by Saturday Night Live’s Kristin Wiig) is recovering from a business venture sunk by the economic crisis, and is asked to be maid of honour at her best friend Lilian’s wedding. But Lilian has made a new friend, the glamorous, pushy Helen, who has her own ideas about how the wedding preparations should be handled, often at a price that is well out of the range of the impecunious Annie.

Financial worries are a constant presence in Bridesmaids, as they rarely are in the movies, other than those that involve extreme scenarios such as owing money to people with violent tendencies. The last film I remember with such an eye on the petty cash was Walter Salles’ Central Station, way back in 1998. You could say reminding audiences of their bank balance is one of the last taboos of cinema, and this extends far beyond the mainstream. Chinatown screenwriter Robert Towne once recalled his frustration, watching films as a child in California in the 1930 and 40s, at certain narrative conventions. One of those was people blithely leaving change behind them in diners and cafés, something he said people didn’t do in the Depression-hit town he grew up in. Bridesmaids works in this spirit, and it is not only Annie that frets - Helen’s father regularly pipes up, albeit comically, saying ‘I’m not paying for this shit.’ It’s a bit of a risk for a film to talk so freely of money, though possibly less so for a comedy, particularly one with as broad a brush as this one.

Beyond an anchoring in a very recognisable present, one in which millions of Americans alone are sliding inexorably into poverty, and a setting in a mostly overlooked American city (Milwaukee), Bridesmaids is a very funny, occasionally jolting comedy. It might veer a little too much into gross-out territory (the bridal fitting a case in point) but there are some wicked laughs too, such as a hilarious scene of airplane drunkenness (something very hard to play) and a painfully credible Irish cop played by Chris O’Dowd whose earnestness is steadily eroded by the shenanigans around him. It’s also quite telling that practically everybody involved, in front of and behind the camera, has made the jump from the small screen.

Bridesmaids trailer:

8. La Guerre est déclarée (Valérie Donzelli - France)

Actress/director Valérie Donzelli and her former partner, co-writer/co-star Jérémie Elkaïm’s use their own torrid real-life experience of their infant son’s Gabriel brain tumour. It’s a gruelling tale, in which they sell their apartment and max out their bank accounts for their child’s health, and it’s to Donzelli’s credit that she makes what could be a banal domestic tale so compelling. She tackles the matter with a martial diligence reflected in the slightly enigmatic title but her direction also has a lightness of touch that reminds you of early Godard and Truffaut, even if Agnès Varda’s Cléo de 5 à 7 is clearly the key reference. The last few years have been a good time for French cinema with a richly diverse range of films enjoying success (and La Guerre est déclarée did incredibly well at the box office following its August release). The film has been put forward as France’s entry for Best Foreign-language Film at the Oscars. It may be seen as too obstinately offbeat for that notoriously conservative slot but Donzelli’s film looks set to get an audience outside of France, which would be well-deserved reward for a filmmaker worth keeping an eye on.

La Guerre est déclarée trailer:

9. Le Quattro Volte (Michelangelo Frammartino - Italy)

Italian cinema of late, though vastly improved on the picturesque tat of the 80s and 90s, has not been a particularly reflective one and it was this that made the appearance of Le Quattro Volte such a bolt from the blue. Michelangelo Frammartino’s second film is a beautiful unvoiced, discreet, dialogue-free account of life over the course of a year in a Calabrian village. And as much of that life is animal and vegetal as human. The film is a string of tales, loosely connected by the goats that are one of the village’s main sources of sustenance. They also feature in a somewhat savage sacrificial ceremony every year, which is a remnant of a pagan tradition that is millennia old. Another of the village’s main centres of activity is charcoal production, which is made in a massive mound that is half-kiln half-pyre and which provides the film with one of its most arresting images. It’s not always clear what is happening in the film and what the viewer is supposed to draw from it but its strangeness, the frissons you get from watching a goat being born or charcoal burning situate it in a field of film that is thinly populated. The ethnographic cinema of the Iranian Abolfazl Jalili is the only comparable example I can think of. Le Quattro Volte is probably the quietest film that will be released this year but it emits a reverberation that will be felt and recalled long after you’ve seen this gorgeous gem of a film.

Le Quattro Volte trailer:

10. Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn - USA/Denmark)

Nicholas Winding Refn has long been a director with promise but with an unfortunate predilection to privilege style over substance (the Pusher trilogy being an honorable exception). Ryan Gosling is a talented actor with a troublingly high ratio of films that are clearly below his station. So I wasn’t expecting too much from this, Refn’s second American film.

But Drive is as mesmerizing as it is ostensibly cold and for once, Refn’s reliance on style comes up a winner. The film’s 80s look and music remind you of early Michael Mann (Thief in particular) and Gosling’s glacial hero is reminiscent of Alain Delon in his films with Jean-Pierre Melville’s (Le Samouraï, Le Cercle rouge and Les Doulos). It’s a thin, lean film that will annoy many - some might be tempted to think of it, less as those illustrious references, as The Notebook with added urban alienation - but sometimes style in itself is not such a bad thing. Drive is a handsome thriller that won’t overload you with sustenance but it is great cinema, in the sense of a film to be seen on the big screen, enjoyed on a night out.

Drive trailer:

The Best of the Rest

Tomboy (Céline Sciamma - France)

Another Year (Mike Leigh - UK)

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Nuri Bilge Ceylan - Turkey)

Moneyball (Bennett Miller - USA)

Polisse (Maïwenn - France)

Essential Killing (Jerzy Skolimomski - USA/Ireland/Israel)

Santiago 73 - Post Mortem (Pablo Larraín - Chile)

Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky - USA)

Le Roman de ma femme (Djamshed Usmanov - France)

The Strange Case of Angelica (Manoel de Oliveira - Portugal)

Ha Ha Ha (Hong Sang-Soo - South Korea)

The Fighter (David O. Russell - USA)

Le gamin au vélo (Jean-Luc & Pierre Dardenne - Belgium)

The Hunter (Rafi Pitts - Iran/Germany)

Poulet aux prunes (Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud - France)

Pater (Alain Cavalier - France)

Meek’s Cutoff (Kelly Reichardt - USA)

The Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Werner Herzog - USA/France/Germany)

Habemas Papam (Nanni Moretti - Italy)

Attenberg (Athina Rachel Tsangari - Greece)

Neds (Peter Mullan - UK)

The Artist (Michel Hazanavicius - France/USA)

L’Exercice de l’Etat (Pierre Schoeller - France)

Hors Satan (Bruno Dumont - France)

Melancholia (Lars Von Trier - Denmark/France/Germany)

La Piel Que Habito (Pedro Almodóvar - Spain)

Carancho (Pablo Trapero - Argentina)

I Wish I Knew (Jia Zhangke - China)

Carnage (Roman Polanski - France/USA)

The Worst

The King's Speech (Tom Hooper - UK/USA)

And what of the year’s worst films? It’s always a crowded field but 2011 had two stand-outs. They stand out not so much because of their inherent awfulness (though both are bad) but because they scooped the two biggest prizes going - Academy Award for Best Picture and the Palme d’Or at Cannes.

It was fairly obvious from early on that The King’s Speech was going to clean up at the Oscars - it has everything that Academy members recognise as ‘culture’ - country houses, posh British accents, tweed and Colin Firth; it also has another thing close to Hollywood’s heart: a handicap and the will to overcome it. Even better, there is the vulgar but enterprising dilettante Lionel Logue, an outsider from the margins of Empire, there to shake the muddling royal out of it and get him to speak to the nation. Hollywood likes the glamour of royalty for decor but to get anything done, you’re going to have to turn to a commoner.

And, to be fair to the Academy voters, much of what we see onscreen is excellent. The set design is excellent, the cinematography is excellent, the costumes are excellent, the acting (especially by Guy Pearce as the abdicating Edward VIII) is excellent. Yet the film itself never excels. All the constituent elements are technically brilliant but none transcends that; for all the brio of Pearce, Firth and Geoffrey Rush’s performances, they are really no more or less important in the heel of the hunt than the quality of the hairdressing or the make-up. Job well done and all that but what we are left with is a Laura Ashley sports-movie, a drearily inexorable trajectory towards a pitchman’s target, shorn of nuance, ambiguity or depth. Tom Hooper, whose actual sports movie The Damned United possessed all those three qualities, in this film commits the worst of directorial sins: he guides the audience. And much of that guidance is keeping them away from trouble spots as ushering them to the final prize. The King’s Speech is a wonderful salve but comforting drama doesn’t make for great cinema. There are good intentions behind the film but watching it will do you about as much good as a diet of organic junk food will.

The King's Speech trailer:

The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick - USA)

The decision of the Robert de Niro-chaired jury at Cannes this year to bestow the Palme d’Or on Terrence Malick was not too surprising. It’s hardly the first time that better films have been overlooked (in this case Drive, L’Apollinide, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, Le Gamin au vélo among others) for the top prize and Malick is, let’s face it, still a big name. The sad fact, however, is his films are not what they once were (even if there are many that will disagree with me on that). The rot began to set in with his comeback The Thin Red Line in 1997. Fine film though it was, it was marred by an unnecessarily starry cast and self-indulgent perorations on being and nature that were not in James Jones’ excellent source novel nor had they any place in a war film. Still, The Thin Red Line was not entirely sunk by this self-consciousness. His next film, the Pocahontas-John Smith drama The New World, was a slog to watch - more pantheist gibberish and a pace deadened to the point of lassitude.

The Tree of Life, like those two films, has many sequences that are brilliantly filmed, many of them involving children playing or the brutal patriarch played by Brad Pitt. Pitt is possibly the best thing in the film, breathing an enormous amount of life into what is essentially a caricature. If Malick still has the magic touch on set, how are his films so bad? Probably because he writes and produces them too. The Tree of Life sets out to be about much more than just the tale of a man traumatised by his abusive upbringing - it is about the very capacity for conflict and cruelty in living beings, if we are to gather from the sequence where a dinosaur-ish creature refrains from stepping upon the head of its prey. Some critics saw beauty in this scene. I saw it rather as Malick overplaying his hand, which he does throughout the film.

Sean Penn, as the man the child grows up to be, seemingly can’t handle a conference call such is the malignant influence of his father’s bossiness on him. He is supposed to be an architect but heaven forbid that Malick give us any inkling as to how that might form his life or his character - Terry is answering to a higher power. The Tree of Life would be drastically improved by removing every scene with Penn in it, or even better, replacing them with scenes of Penn as the Robert Smith-esque rock star in This Must Be the Place. Editing however is not Malick’s strong point; his template is clearly Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, even going so far as to drag Douglas Trumbull out of retirement to produce similar visual effects. 2001 is a far from perfect film but having re-watched it shortly after seeing The Tree of Life, it is a lot more forceful and cohesive. Malick’s film, on the other hand, asks narrative cinema to carry far too big a load. It’s not that ideas are incompatible with cinema but such is the leap from biological pre-history to suburban 1950s America, Malick encourages us to think in absolute terms. The jarring discrepancy between those grand precepts and a pretty humdrum underdeveloped narrative quickly turns to bathos. There is a lot in The Tree of Life’s three hours but it is a film that seems weirdly overfed and undernourished at the same time.

It is frustrating that Malick continues to plough this self-indulgent furrow as he is still a wonderful director of actors, and has a great eye for the strangeness in nature. If only someone might take him aside and persuade him to make simple films like Badlands and Days of Heaven again. Those were witty, intelligent and perfectly calibrated films, with an anchoring in a specific time and place. They were also, crucially, modest in their intellectual ambitions. The sort of films Malick wants to make these days are done far better by other directors, such as Michael Haneke and Lars Von Trier. Malick lacks their ironic self-awareness and unfortunately his films are empty bombast, even if he still has enough champions in the critical fraternity that think otherwise.
The Tree of Life trailer:

Other stinkers of note:

We Need to Talk About Kevin (Lynne Ramsay - UK)

Restless (Gus Van Sant - USA)

Burke and Hare (John Landis - UK)

Monday, December 19, 2011

Some books of the year

A far from definitive list, but rather a selection of the better stuff I read this year, minus the more canonical works (I could regale you with my Panglossian enthusiasm for some guy called Shakespeare but maybe I shouldn't). Eagle-eyed readers will notice most the books here were not published this year - not to worry, there's plenty of time to get round to 2011's batch of publications.

Long Time, No See - Dermot Healy, Faber, £12.99

Healy’s first novel in over a decade confirms him as the unlikely experimental stylist first glimpsed in Sudden Times. The novel is narrated by one Mr Psyche (not exactly a Sligo name, but anyway) who has recently left school and who spends much of his time administering to his older neighbours Uncle JoeJoe and the Blackbird in a small coastal village in the north-west of Ireland. There is a hint of McGahern’s That They May Face the Rising Sun in the gentle pace of the rural setting but Healy divulges most of the tale through dialogue, much of it phatic and repetitive. It can hamper the mechanics of the plot at times but there’s a justness to the flow of niceties, making it almost a lexicon of small-town etiquette; its social interactions are convincingly spare but endowed with the sometimes ruinous reticence of the rural Irishman.

The drama is provided by the older gentlemen, eccentric Malibu-drinkers armed with tales of surprising social exuberance from the prehistory of Celtic Tiger Ireland. Mr Psyche is a sage anchor for the proceedings, a sensible foil for an entertaining, generous novel that goes about its business with everyday grace and quiet confidence. Irish writers are notoriously non-prolific, knocking out novels at their own pace and on their own terms. You can’t begrudge Dermot Healy that if the result is as pleasing as Long Time, No See. Still, you hope there won’t be as long a wait for the next one.

If it is your life - James Kelman, Penguin £8.99 (2010)

Cantankerous old Jimmy Kelman is one of the few genuine originals in British fiction and one who, his 1994 Booker for How Late It Was, How Late notwithstanding, is rarely afforded the respect he deserves. He is also a rare novelist whose short stories are every bit as vital as his longer work and his eighth collection, published last year, is as sparky and belligerently eloquent as ever.

The collection opens with ‘Tricky times ahead pal’, a tale of an unexpected amputation and the task of tailoring a pair of trousers to cope with it, delivered in a comically matter-of-fact way. Kelman shifts tone and voice effortlessly, encompassing wounded pride (‘talking about my wife’), genial solicitude (‘The Gate’, the story of a man trying to carry a second-hand children’s bike home after buying it) and paternal indignation (‘The Third Man, or else the Fourth’). Long pieces are interspersed with micro-stories, only a page or two long, as gnomic as they are evocative. The long title story is a painfully poignant account of a young working-class Glaswegian negotiating his own gentrification at college with a mixture of industrious pride and guilt at what he is leaving behind. It is a beautiful, magnanimous piece, the crowning achievement of a diverse, absurdist and bleakly funny book.

I, Partridge: We Need to Talk About Alan - Alan Partridge, with Rob Gibbons, Neil Gibbons, Armando Iannucci and Steve Coogan, Harper Collins, £9.99

I normally steer clear of audio books, partly because I consider books to be sacred objects but also because far too often you are at the mercy of the person entrusted with reading them and the risk of an annoyingly-voiced narrator is too high to part with cash. (Last I looked, printed books are also cheaper). But there are times when recourse to the spoken word is warranted and the much awaited 'second' autobiography of Norfolk’s favourite light entertainer is one of them. It is, as Partridge himself might say, textbook narration.

I, Partridge takes us from Alan’s birth (‘my father held me aloft like a fleshy World Cup’), through his miserable childhood and schooldays, to his meteoric rise to - and fall from - fame, and his uneasy reconciliation with provincial obscurity. Partridge is already one of the finest comic creations of the last thirty years, a precisely calibrated avatar of Middle English rightness and petit-bourgeois indignation. What is surprising is how the gag rarely flags over 300 pages - or almost seven hours, if you are listening. It’s a catalogue of cringe, a bathysphere of bathos, a symphony of squaredom. It’s also one of the finest badly-written books of this or any year (it is useful to listen to it periodically as a negative yardstick while writing) and one whose author would be only too proud to accept a Bad Sex award for.

The Music Instinct - Philip Ball, Vintage £8.99 (2010)

Philip Ball’s book won’t teach you how to read music because its premise is that you already know how. The title suggests a lineage from Steven Pinker but the inspiration is not the one you’d think, but rather a passage in How the Mind Works, where Pinker dismissed music as ‘auditory cheesecake’, and which provoked a minor kerfuffle in musicological circles. A science writer by trade who also has an impressively broad knowledge of music, Ball promptly takes Pinker to task before positing that we are all innately endowed with an ability to parse and interpret the sonic, tonal and rhythmic properties of the music we hear. Music leads the book but it is always underpinned by recourse to scientific studies - that might prove too technical for some it does make you look at and listen to the music afresh.

Ball is also an enlightened listener, he refuses blanket dismissals on grounds of taste of even the most wretched popular music and he is impatient with musical absolutes, allowing himself to admire and decry Schoenberg in equal measure. And neither is it all Western music that informs his theory - Indian, African, Native American music are all considered, while Javanese and Balinese gamelan is a crucial counterpoint to Western tonality. An online repository of recordings (albeit pretty insipid computer-generated ones) accompanies the book, which demystifies much of the heavier technical stuff. The author would no doubt be uncomfortable with suggestions The Music Instinct should have an ameliorative purpose but the book does make you a better listener. And it’s enjoyable in the process too.

Tentative d’épuisement d’un lieu parisien - Georges Perec, Christian Bourgois (1975) €5

(Available in English as An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris, translated by Marc Lowenthal, Wakefield Press $12.95)

Perec had a Joycean impatience with form, rarely attempting anything more than once. If he ran out of literary archetypes, he would invent more. Among those inventions were tracts on how to ask your boss for a raise, a list of everything he ate and drank throughout 1974 and, in this short piece, a description of everything he saw over three days sitting in Café de la Mairie on Paris’ Place Saint-Sulpice in October of that year.

The title of the piece suggests Perec wanted to bleed the place of life, to record it for posterity, much as one might pin a butterfly lifeless to a display-case mount. It’s an idea that seems remarkably prescient today in the age of Google’s omnivorous thirst for documentation. And Perec was himself an able archivist, in both a professional and literary sense (he worked as a scientific archivist). One of his posthumous works was a collection of short essays entitled Penser/Classer (Think/Classify) but, like the lexicographer in Life - A User’s Manual whose job is to retire obviated words from the dictionary, Perec also knew that classification demanded selectiveness.

Tentative d’épuisement… purports to describe everything that passes into his view as he sits looking out into the square but Perec is chopping and excluding just as any other narrator would. And he is constantly questioning his observations, wondering if a tour bus is full of Germans or Japanese; if the plat du jour, which he can no longer see listed from a different table, has changed since yesterday. The only constants in his observations are the buses, the 63, the 70, the 86, the 87, the 96, which punctuate his text with familiar irregularity. What Perec seems to rather be doing is trying to exhaust the possibilities of non-literary description. That his Place Saint-Sulpice springs to life so readily from his seemingly obsessive list is testimony to an abject but brilliant failure on the part of the laureate of literary taxonomy.

X’ed Out - Charles Burns, Pantheon $19.95 (2010)

Burns’ first new comic book series since the hugely successful Black Hole is an intriguing account of a nightmare experienced by a patient recovering after what seems to be a traumatic accident or assault. In this first installment of a projected six, there’s no clear indication as to how art student Doug got into such a state, nor is it clear what his dreams, in which he appears as a Tintin surrogate, might mean. Burns’ gradual and discrete unfolding of the narrative is irresistible though and his use of darkened intertitles and blank panels impart an eery Lynchian menace. The book, with its bedridden hero trying to muster up clues from his past to elucidate his dreams, reads like a grotesque Proust, articulated in a clean, almost academic style that throws the disturbing vision into sharp relief.

Seeing - José Saramago (translated by Margaret Jull-Costa) Vintage £8.99 (2006)

The late Saramago’s 2004 novel is a parable on the tolerable limits of democratic mandates, which gained added resonance with events in the past year. A majority of voters in a general election return blank ballots, prompting the government to rerun the election a week later. An even bigger number of blanks - 85% - is returned and the government declares a state of emergency and vows to crush the unseen forces that threaten the fabric of democracy.

Seeing is written with Saramago’s characteristic faux-naive laconic drollness, and reintroduces - though not entirely convincingly - characters from Blindness, the novel of his most people are familiar with. And the scenario - where a plurality of political opinion is considered incommensurate with the totem of the ballot box - is one that is borne out with all too frequent familiarity these days. The blackmailing of the Irish electorate in the two Lisbon referendums and the similar stance taken by the Euro elites at the time of the earlier plebiscites in France and the Netherlands indicate exercising one’s suffrage a bit too seriously is not be encouraged. Now we see the Hobson’s Choice faced by voters in Spain and Portugal - and not even that in Italy and Greece - in response to the mismanagement of the economy. There is also the assumption in western countries that the chief goal of the Arab revolutions is to win the right to vote - a partial aim that becomes increasingly questionable when the ‘wrong’, ie. Islamist, parties are the beneficiaries of the polls.

Saramago deftly crafts a bleakly funny - but ultimately bleak - narrative that so precisely delineates the infantilising rhetoric of the political class, it is probably the finest fictional paradigm of a political reality since Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, and one that will likely gain further currency in years to come.

Knowledge of Hell - António Lobo Antunes (translated by Clifford E. Landers) Dalkey Archive $13.95 (2008)

There was a ‘new’ Antunes published in English this year - a new translation of his 1979 novel Os Cus de Judas, previously available as South of Nowhere and now as The Land at the End of the World - but the novel that followed that in 1980, Knowledge of Hell, is a fuller, more even work. Like the earlier novel, it draws on Antunes’ own experience as a medic for three years at the end of Portugal’s bloody colonial war in Angola. A veteran of the war, now practising as a psychiatrist at a mental institution in Lisbon (as Antunes was early in his literary career) recounts his experiences in an imaginary conversation with his daughter.

Knowledge of Hell is very much an apprentice novelist’s work, with self-doubt and bravado at turns bubbling below the surface of the text. But it is nonetheless hugely impressive. Antunes’ stunningly acute eye for visual metaphor is here already highly developed and his dense Faulknerian prose is the right vehicle for the confused nightmarish morass of memory conjured by wartime service. If, as Tom McCarthy remarked last year, prose is the chassis of fiction but poetry the engine, Antunes’ novels are seriously high-performance. Antunes has written a further sixteen novels, almost all of which document the at times harrowing reflux of Portuguese decolonisation, but only about half are available in English. Even more puzzling is how relatively unknown he remains. Though he has his high-profile champions - George Steiner, James Wood and Harold Bloom are fans - he has yet to be published in the UK. Maybe his novels are considered a bit prohibitively ‘difficult’ by a publishing industry that increasingly lauds the ‘readability’ of literary works, but you can help but think many people are missing out on one of the finest writers alive, writing in any language.

New Finnish Grammar - Diego Marani (translated by Judith Landry), Dedalus £9.99

Italian linguist Diego Marani’s 2000 novel, celebrated across Europe, finally gets an English-language publication. New Finnish Grammar charts the anatomy of language-learning, through the device of an amnesiac soldier in the Second World War who is convinced by his Finnish doctor that he too is Finnish. Repatriated to Helsinki, in the throes of war with the Soviet Union, the patient sets to learning the notoriously difficult language and tries to piece together his memories of the city that is supposedly his own.

He gathers his impressions in a diary and correspondence with a nurse who takes a shine to him before she rushes back off to the doomed front in Keralia. The novel perfectly captures the twists and turns of learning a foreign language, the dead ends, the frustrations, the breakthroughs, the wounded impatience with the target culture and the occasional quixotic identification with it. It is also a touching tribute to a unique country and culture, which seldom attracts the attention of anyone abroad. The success of New Finnish Grammar makes one hopeful translations of Marani’s five other novels will soon follow.

The Net Delusion, Evgeny Morozov, Allen Lane £14.99

The fact that Morozov’s book, published just after the New Year, was very quickly dated by the Arab revolutions, only underlines its timeliness. The Net Delusion, developed from Morozov’s Net Effect blog for Foreign Policy, takes aim at those ‘cyber utopians’ and ‘internet centrists’, who believe in the unfailing potential of the internet and technology to enable a passage to democracy and to defeat totalitarian regimes and old-school dictatorships. The popular belief that access to knowledge online was the exposure that would consign such regimes to history took a battering during the clampdown on the so-called Green revolution in Iran in 2009, in which protestors were easily picked off thanks to the online trail they had left. Morozov shows how every benefit of technology conceals a danger and these dangers are posed, not simply by the usual bogeymen in Beijing, Moscow and Tehran but also by governments in western democracies.

It soon emerged that there was a troubling interaction between some of the high priests of cyber-utopianism and unsavoury regimes - Clay Shirky had visited Libya in an IT consultant capacity back in 2007. And while people in the west enthusiastically added twibbons to their profiles for revolutions in the Middle East and decried the hounding of bloggers and activists there, later in the year we were being encouraged to post pictures on Facebook of rioters in Vancouver and London to name and shame them. It never seemed to cross anyone’s mind that such a habit quickly acquired might later be applied to political protestors. Morozov knows better than most the dangers that lurk in online activism for citizens of certain countries, having grown up in Belarus. A new foreword came with a paperback edition towards the end of the year; he does not deny that social media played an important role in the Arab revolutions, and continues to do so, but his warning that technology is a double-edged sword should be heeded by anyone with a blind faith in its progressive properties.

Loading image

Click anywhere to cancel

Image unavailable

Loading image

Click anywhere to cancel

Image unavailable

Loading image

Click anywhere to cancel

Image unavailable

Loading image

Click anywhere to cancel

Image unavailable