(originally published in The Outreach Connection in December 2005)
Several of my very favourite commercial releases this year barely qualify as that – they played at the 2004 film festival and then at the Cinematheque. And Head-On played only one or two nights at the Goethe Institute, before making a low-key one-week return later on. Still, you take your movies where you can. Apologies to any masterpieces released right at the end of the year. Here’s the list.
The World (Jia Zhang-ke)This was my introduction to the work of Chinese auteur Jia - I didn’t see his acclaimed film Platform until later. The World - focusing on a young boyfriend and girlfriend, both working in a Beijing theme park filled with scaled-down replicas of world landmarks - is an engrossing work, illustrating a China in transition, touching on its persistent poverty (especially rurally), its abiding mystery and its banality. It’s a melancholy film, but it’s also filled with humour and incident and is a continuously fascinating work of anthropology – it’s particularly attuned toward women and the forces that drive them toward merely superficial advancement, ornamentation or even prostitution.
Cafe Lumiere (Hou Hsiao-Hsien)What a pleasure that Café Lumiere (dedicated to Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu) is the most narratively accessible of the Hou films I’ve seen. It follows a young woman, three months pregnant and just back from Taiwan, as she criss-crosses Tokyo, visiting parents or friends, working on a research project, but most often simply seen in transit. Both thematically and in its technique, the film seems to be about self-definition and its contingencies and choices. This subject might have entailed Hou’s most diverse, ambitious canvas yet, but he responds instead by honing down to his simplest, purest film.
Moolaade (Ousmane Sembene)It’s amazing that this year brought a new film by Sembene, the pioneer of African cinema. His astonishing Moolaade, if it turns out to be his last film, will stand as a triumphant summation of his career. It’s simple in its technique, with the unadorned clarity and straightforward quality of a children’s story (although its subject is genital mutilation), but it exposes both the beauty and brutality of Africa with powerful eloquence.
Comme Une Image (Agnes Jaoui)Jaoui’s follow-up to The Taste of Others revolves around an essentially monstrous author and publisher and a group of characters whose spiritual health lies in the distance they manage to put between themselves and him. The film understands that such monsters are created as much by the structures around them as by rampant pathology; the title suggests how identity is as much social as personal. The film always stays in familiar, easily assimilated territory, it’s unobtrusive in its style and acted in a pleasant register, but it’s entirely scintillating, examining in surprising detail a range of shifting tastes and possibilities.
2046 (Wong Kar-Wai)Wong Kar-Wai’s 2046 is an astonishing work of cinematic design – one of those films that rapidly exhausts your powers of absorption on first viewing. The director reportedly reedited the film continually over a period of several years, and the result is an extraordinarily intricate tapestry of memory and association. It takes off from Wong’s In the Mood for Love, based around the same late 60’s Hong Kong setting, but the canvas now involves multiple women, multiple moments of loss and regret, and an occasional evocation of future worlds. The film uses time as an accordion, thrilling you with its structural sophistication; it’s also emotionally enthralling and immensely evocative. This was the only film this year that I felt demanded an almost immediate second viewing.
Junebug (Phil Morrison)This is a low budget film about a North Carolina family when the eldest son, who long ago moved away to Chicago, returns to visit, with a sophisticated new wife. It’s an astoundingly subtle picture, spare but perfectly weighted, accumulating a remarkable series of implications. No recent film better portrays the “American heartland” so often referred to – George W. Bush isn’t mentioned in the movie, but it tells you everything you need to know about how he gets away with it – and it’s a borderline-horrific portrayal of family dynamics. The film is ambiguous enough that it could alternatively be read as a light, quirky semi-comedy (it works just fine as such) – as such it’s a masterful prism for prevailing complacency, and a great achievement by the unknown Morrison.
Good Night, and Good Luck (George Clooney)I loved George Clooney’s highly disciplined account of how CBS News took on Joseph McCarthy in the 1950’s. The impeccably controlled David Straithairn is mesmerizing as Murrow, and despite the film’s stripped down air – it focuses almost entirely on work processes (flawlessly fusing new and found footage), runs only an hour and a half and seldom moves outside the newsroom or a few other bland interiors – it’s distinctly romantic and even subtly mystic. Between this and the gloomier Syriana, Clooney certainly deserves some kind of recognition for the year’s most striking overall contribution.
Head-On (Fatih Akin)This is a fascinating, often fiery movie about the marriage and love affair (in that order) of two German Turks. It initially seems almost like a distended commentary on the impossibility of transcending one’s roots, but works an unpredictable way toward a universal poignancy that almost evokes Casablanca; sometimes it seems too simplistic in how it lays out various tensions for our examination, but few films have such constant feisty variation and vigour.
Broken Flowers (Jim Jarmusch)This laconic tale of so-laidback-he’s-hardly-there Bill Murray visiting a stream of old girlfriends has an easy sweetness, bolstered by wonderful performances from all concerned. For some of its length it’s a little underwhelming, with the director’s deadpan minimalism seeming like an affectation rather than a meaningful worldview. Ultimately though it all comes together, placing Murray at the centre of a significant perception shift, and allowing you to see the craft and nuance behind the movie’s every element.
The Family Stone (Thomas Bezucha)
Bezucha’s debut film - about Christmas at a rambunctious liberal family - is ultimately a little disappointing as only a very good movie can be – it’s so very smart and accomplished that you’re frustrated at its failure to be a masterpiece. Comme une image is a particularly useful reference point in demonstrating how The Family Stone is ultimately insufficiently philosophical and probing, and ultimately succumbs to an excessive desire for tidiness. But I haven’t smiled or chuckled as much in any film this year, and the sentiment got to me too. So it makes the cut.
Among others that might have made it: Nobody Knows, Los Angeles Plays Itself, War of the Worlds, Saraband, Yes, Grizzly Man, A History Of Violence, Brokeback Mountain, King Kong (yes!) and lots of movies in the tier just below that. And now on to 2006, with Match Point and The New World already in our sights. Not to mention that Disney movie about the eight huskies that get stranded! Happy New Year!