(originally published in The Outreach Connection in December 2004)
This was a satisfying year – the first in a while where I find myself puzzling over what to leave off the top ten list rather than over what to put on it. Here’s where I ended up (in no particular order); apologies to any masterpieces released at the very end of the year.
There’s something almost unbearably touching and joyous about Richard Linklater’s sequel to his 1995 Before Sunrise. The film’s concept (two people having an extended conversation in Paris) and execution are simple, but its impact seems to flow from the very heart of cinema, prompting endless reflections on memory and the power of the image. Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy are both magnificent, and it probably has the best ending of the year.
Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Turkish film had a brief run at the Cinematheque, where it evoked for me the transforming effect of watching Chantal Akerman’s Les rendezvous d’Anna at the age of 16 or 17; about an unemployed man who comes from the country to the city to stay with his more prosperous cousin, it’s visually ravishing and totally gripping from the outset as a thematic and psychological construction. The film’s beautiful choreography gracefully depicts the similarities in the two men’s solitary trajectories; it’s one of the best recent films on the classic arthouse theme of alienation.
I wouldn’t strenuously disagree with the common list of faults identified in Lars von Trier’s Dogville: pretentiousness, repetition, lazy point scoring. Even so, this film about a woman’s humiliation in a small Depression-era village is stylistically so fascinating (it was shot in its entirety inside a Swedish warehouse, with no sets) that a reasonably minded viewer should be able to stay with it through these challenges. And it’s clearly a major piece of political cinema, even if one’s assessment in that regard is inevitably going to be coloured by personal preconceptions.
Cremaster 1, 2, 3, 4, 5
Matthew Barney’s already semi-legendary Cremaster cycle, made over the last ten years, finally arrived at the Cinematheque, then at the Carlton. Overall it’s an amazing achievement by Barney. The films are as consciously “arty’ as anything you’ll ever see – their perversity and incredible individuality serve as a constant challenge to all preconceptions, but despite that they achieve a remarkable degree of coherence. With the director himself turning up in a variety of weird guises, the series is certainly narcissistic, but Barney’s multi-dimensional mirror seems at times to reflect almost the entire span of creative endeavour, and it’s thrilling both to watch and to contemplate afterwards.
Leigh’s amazing film shows an ordinary woman in 1920’s England who “helps out girls in trouble” – she performs abortions, and eventually is arrested and put through the justice system. The film is a devastating sociological critique, based in an almost supernatural evocation of time and place – in particular, each character represents a slightly different perspective on sexuality, shown here as a commodity inherently conditioned by class. The film is less showy than some of Leigh’s work, but ultimately I think it ranks second only to Topsy-Turvy.
Metallica: Some Kind of Monster
Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s documentary on the making of Metallica’s last album delivers all the rock genre goods, but with a bizarre (until you’ve thought of it, that is) contemporary twist: the band members undergo relentless talk therapy as they try to hold it all together. It’s intermittently hilarious and always fascinating, and in a year of many fine documentaries stands out in the memory for its surprising thematic scope.
Olivier Assayas’ 2002 film finally played here at the Cinematheque after a long delay. It’s an amazing creation, straining what you’d think would be the edges of someone’s creative prowess. The first half is a precise, superbly executed drama of high finance (perhaps the best since Alan Pakula’s Rollover); the second half deliberately sheds all coherence, taking on the dream logic of a David Lynch film as alliances and understandings persistently redefine themselves. The film exhibits a cacophony of interests and influences, all spinning off the cultural, personal and sexual perils of high-tech globalization, opening up unimaginable wells of neurosis.
When I saw Bernardo Bertolucci’s chronicle of sex and cinema in 1968 Paris, it didn’t seem likely to make this list. Certain parts of the film are utterly vibrant and compelling, but the emphasis on so much youthful beauty rather blurs its thematic possibilities, and the ending seemed far more visually arresting than meaningful. Even so, I find myself dwelling on the film far more than most others, perhaps because in making a film that draws so explicitly on his own origins, Bertolucci almost seems to be acknowledging his need for rejuvenation.
On the basis of my sole visit there so far, Atom Egoyan’s Camera (on 1020 Queen West) is an enticing addition to the city, especially since you can see a film there, walk a couple of blocks and then hang out at the Drake Hotel. It’s where I saw Patrice Chereau’s Son Frere, a hugely accomplished study of a man with a debilitating blood disease and his relationship with his brother. The film blends clinical precision of observation with an extraordinarily fluid perspective toward family versus sexual love, and the social implications of illness and its inherently marginalizing consequences; it’s emotionally wrenching, and thrilling in its thoroughness.
Million Dollar Baby
After the astonishing one-two punch of Mystic River and the new film, Clint Eastwood again seems close to the summit of American directors. The film shows no shame with boxing cliches; the characters are essentially stock figures, and much of the trajectory is familiar. But Million Dollar Baby seems to understand these mechanics more fully and fluently than almost any other film – it’s an eloquent study, minimally but beautifully styled, in how the sport’s strange mechanics and culture redefine the three main characters.
Other honourable mentions: The Triplets of Belleville, Broken Wings, Baadaaaas, The Mother, Zatoichi. That’s a lot of honourable mentions – it was a good year. As I mentioned, lots of good (or at least intriguing) documentaries too – My Architect, The Take, The Yes Men, The Corporation. Films like Sideways and Kinsey were terrific entertainments without quite convincing me as art. As always, I doubt that I saw the year’s worst films, but I was heavily in the dissenting camp on The Passion of Christ, and was lukewarm on Fahrenheit 911. Also a great film festival year, lots of great DVD releases, and another wonderful year at the Cinematheque. Could I be happier? Sure, if they released Orson Welles’ The Other Side of the Wind. See you in 2005!