(originally published in The Outreach Connection in December 2006)
This is a really great list – the best in years I think. Apologies to any masterpieces released in late December. Happy holidays (and rent the DVDs)!
In no particular order:
The New World (Terrence Malick)
Malick’s first film since The Thin Red Line was a 2005 release for Oscar purposes but opened here on January 20 of this year. His telling of the story of John Smith and Pocahontas is simply ravishing, and utterly surprising and bracing for virtually every single minute. It’s not just that Malick rejects the usual norms of narrative and editing – it’s as if he’s never known them, and intuitively replaces mainstream conventions with a sense of intense romanticism that cuts across time and space and inner and outer states. This makes the movie difficult at times, and there are plenty of moments when the prospect of becoming a chocolate box cover seems tangible, but overall the film provides you the consistent thrill of submitting to a simply breathtaking sensibility. I don’t know about its historical accuracy, but it certainly feels anthropologically fascinating as well.
The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (Tommy Lee Jones)
This is a remarkable directorial debut for the 60-year-old icon, as assured as, and quite a bit more distinctive than, Clint Eastwood’s best late films. Jones plays an aging South Texas farmhand setting out to deliver his dead Mexican friend to his hometown. It has the overall arc of a great eccentric Western, true to the evocative power of the landscape and the stoic, taciturn hero, but bursting with oddities – character quirks, strange incidents and parallels, the sheer inexplicable. Most compelling is the way that Jones keeps the lid very tight on his own character, and yet in the end the power of his will and vision – although beyond our understanding – seems to transform the film’s physical and psychological elements alike: it’s one of those endings that simultaneously makes little sense, and yet as much as anyone should possibly need.
The Passenger (Michelangelo Antonioni)
After a long absence, Antonioni’s 1975 masterpiece resurfaced for some Cinematheque screenings and then at the Carlton. It’s famous for its enigmatic qualities, but I was equally as taken by its specificity and deliberation; it’s a thriller and a dream and an eloquent meditation on cinema. You never see anything nowadays forged with such calm intellectual confidence.
Cache (Michael Haneke)
Haneke’s film, about a family that receives a series of mysterious videos, was almost incalculably more satisfying than most other releases this year. It can be viewed as a satisfying, vaguely Hitchcockian thriller, but at the same time that it caters to our taste for narrative momentum, it rigorously deconstructs and critiques that very desire. Ultimately it’s a serious inquisition into the morality of cinematic pleasure – a project that could have been somewhat academic, but seems to me in this case almost transcendentally gripping.
Three Times (Hou Hsiao-hsien)
Taiwanese director Hou’s film is made up of three episodes, each starring the same two actors, set at different points in the twentieth century. It’s full of parallels and echoes, and is exquisitely constructed and manufactured; the overall trajectory of each story is clear, but each retains considerable mystery; each forms a mini social critique of the times. After this and his last film Cafe Lumiere, it seems possible that Hou is stripping down his film’s complexities and becoming more purely a humanist, albeit a very specifically Taiwanese one, and this should surely cause his audience and popular stature to increase, although to the extent that this ultimately renders him more conventional, there is something to regret in the evolution too.
Gabrielle (Patrice Cheareau)
Patrice Cheareau may quietly be making a case for himself as one of the world’s best directors, and Gabrielle, about the impact on an arid bourgeois marriage of the wife’s brief affair, is a major addition to that dossier. It depicts an age where marriage is as much a social as a private affair, a matter of contract and convention rather than of love, and the positions of the two main characters grow increasingly complex. It’s also distinctly brutal - the movie reminded me of Scorsese’s description of his Age of Innocence as his most violent film. Cheareau’s approach is masterfully analytical.
A Prairie Home Companion (Robert Altman)
81-year-old Altman keeps delivering one superb possible career endnote after another, and this may be the best of all. That’s what I wrote when I started drafting this article in mid-November, and then he went and died on us. Set around a live radio broadcast based on Garrison Keillor’s real-life radio show, it’s immensely rich, with Altman’s camera in constant elegant motion, showcasing his undiminished powers of composition and coordination. It’s also a wonderful, but realistic, evocation of the spiritual stakes inherent in art. Of all the fine films listed here, it’s probably the one I just plain loved watching the most.
The Proposition (John Hillcoat)
Hillcoat’s film is set in 1880’s Australia but otherwise resembles a classic Western – a story of revenge and murder in a faltering civilization, thick with blood and flies and heat and suffering. It’s thrillingly and exactingly specific about its time and place while tapping all the pleasures of the genre, with a resonant underlying theme about the making of a civilization. By its nature it holds you at a horrified distance, entailing I expect that it will be a film that’s intensely admired more than loved, but I don’t see how its particular project could have been much better executed.
The Science of Sleep (Michel Gondry)
Gondry’s extremely personal film about a young Mexican man living in Paris, who habitually confuses the boundaries between dream and reality, is an utter delight. It’s the kind of film that’s so packed with invention and non-linear creativity that you wonder how any human mind ever arrived at it, but it never feels like a mere jaunt, partly because the complex romantic relationship at its centre is so scintillatingly conceived. Gondry’s last film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind had greater scope perhaps, but this is the one where he really got to me.
Little Children (Todd Field)
Field’s second film (after his much admired debut, In the Bedroom, which I was a bit lukewarm about) displays dazzling overall skill and intelligence. Kate Winslet and Patrick Wilson play suburban stay at home caregivers, both in rather arid marriages, who connect at the swimming pool and start an affair. Meanwhile, the community obsesses about the presence of a freed sex offender, back at home with his frail but strong-willed mother. The film is quiet, immensely nuanced, with a prevailing tone of bewildered trauma; sometimes it’s satiric, sometimes outright scary, including many magnificent individual scenes and a wealth of surprising detail, all filtered through a perfect cast. It’s most daring in suggesting the spectrum that links the child molester to the merely unsettled male, creating huge ambiguity about real motivations and virtues.