(originally published in The Outreach Connection in December 2002)
Not a bad year at all when I’m able to point to a line-up like this.
Va Savoir (Jacques Rivette)Rivette is one of my very favourite directors, but my first viewing of his latest film left me a little disappointed. It seemed more earthbound than I’m used to with Rivette – the convolutions in the structure didn’t seem as philosophically or intellectually revealing. But further viewings on DVD helped me realize I’d fallen into the easy trap of underestimating him: as with much of Rivette’s work, his films are so subtle and unforced that you can overlook their exquisite balance.
Late Marriage (Dover Koshashvili)An Israeli film of a man resisting his parents’ pressure to marry, while carrying on an affair with an older divorcee. It’s one of the blackest comedies in a long time, one of the most fascinating takes on human relationships, with one of the most striking sex scenes, and one of the most compromised happy endings imaginable. The film deftly suggests an Israeli society (this particular subset is the Georgian émigré community) with huge cracks down the middle. And for those of us unacquainted with that society, I suspect it gains in translation a certain surreal, disembodied nastiness.
Je rentre a la maison (Manoel de Oliveira)This is the first of 93-year-old (93!) de Oliveira’s films that I’ve seen, and I think my lack of familiarity with his work may have prevented me from fully engaging with the film. But surprisingly, I found it stayed in my memory as much as anything else I saw – it’s clearly self-referential, but it has its own entrancing sense of ethicism and elegance. Michel Piccoli plays an esteemed actor trying to get on with his life after the death of his family in a car accident, including accepting a phenomenally miscast role in a film of Joyce’s Ulysses (the deadpan depiction of this episode is one of the year’s most unexpectedly funny contrivances).
Last Orders (Fred Schepisi)Schepisi’s film about three aging drinking buddies mourning the death of a fourth could hardly look and feel more authentically drab and desolate – there’s very little misplaced romanticism or nostalgia here – and yet it gradually takes on the expansive, limitless feel of a Bertolucci film. It skillfully finds moments of hope, of extreme possibilities squandered, of faith and longing. It allows us both to feel the impact of those moments and to appreciate that they don’t amount to much from sixty or seventy years on earth. The actors (including Michael Caine and Bob Hoskins) are all great to watch, and I think this film will grow in one’s memory.
Dog Days (Ulrich Seidl)This sexually explicit film follows a few desperate characters in a seemingly affluent suburb, suffering through a heatwave. It takes the voyeurism inherent in cinema and blows it up to the point that conventional pleasures quickly wither, leaving us scrambling for self-justification. Seidl provides enough relatively easy (if never comfortable) laughs and points of identification that the film’s generally an enveloping experience – but the extent to which it’s straightforwardly pleasurable just make all the more uncomfortable the myriad occasions on which it isn’t that. His characters may look pathetic in a certain way, and we may wonder about the sanity of the actors, but the point is that we end up pondering a unique sexual terrain, and one that’s expansive rather than limiting.
L’Anglaise et le duc (Eric Rohmer)81-year-old Rohmer’s film, set during the French Revolution, uses digital technology to insert its characters into painted settings. The technique is unsettling at first, but as the film progresses, the artificiality strangely becomes a means of authenticity – the unfamiliarity of its appearance reinforces the sense of a true window into the past. The matter-of-fact air of even the most dramatic events seems like a further guarantee of verisimilitude. It’s a film that’s extremely modern while possessing the most classical of qualities; some might find it a bit talky and distended, but it will probably stand as a key Rohmer film.
The Believer (Henry Bean)I haven’t actually seen the end of this film. With no more than ten minutes to go, the Varsity projector broke down and they couldn’t get it back up. Still, I saw enough to know that The Believer is a near-must see. An astonishing creation about a Jew who embraces Nazism, the film is the most articulate of the year, and one of the most subtly perverse: the character’s escalating violence and radicalism coexist with a longing to reimmerse himself in Judaism. Ryan Gosling gives a fine, fiery performance in the main role. The film is sometimes too cluttered, and events take place on such a melodramatic scale that they threaten to swamp the character, but the worst never happens (not up to the last ten minutes anyway).
Talk to her (Pedro Almodovar)Almodovar has mastered the art of making outlandish narratives seem as natural and graceful as a dance. His new film, in which dance is actually woven prominently into the design, revolves around two men, both in love with (wait for it) women in comas. Events build to a shocking violation that Almodovar somehow manages to render smooth and understandable. This is as beguiling a movie as he’s made, even if the broader insights (the title sets out the main message – the importance of communication) don’t amount to much. It shifts gears and perspectives with imperceptible ease, sliding forwards and backwards in time in a way that makes most narratives of that type seem highly self-conscious.
Far from Heaven (Todd Haynes)Haynes’ film recreates the look and feel of a 50s suburban melodrama like All that Heaven Allows, but takes advantage of modern production freedoms to deal more explicitly with themes of race and sexuality than Douglas Sirk or Vincente Minnelli could have imagined. Julianne Moore is the housewife who’s drawn to the black gardener (Dennis Haysbert) while her executive husband (Dennis Quaid) is fighting his homosexuality. In some ways it’s a rather esoteric project, willingly accepting outdated idioms and attitudes, but Haynes sustains the experiment brilliantly, investing it with almost unimaginable subtlety.
Personal Velocity (Rebecca Miller)Miller’s film, consisting of three separate stories about women, is an almost exemplary example of how small things, seen on screen, may seem profound. The middle section, with Parker Posey as a book editor falling out of love with her husband, is particularly superb.
Apologies to any masterpieces released in the last few weeks of the year. Near misses include All or Nothing, The Last Kiss and Roger Dodger. As always, I doubt that I saw the year’s worst films, but the most overrated include Signs and Roads to Perdition. I was most disappointed not to have like Adaptation better, but at least I enjoyed a Bond movie more than I had in years. I guess I must have seen a good Canadian film this year too, but I’ve forgotten what it was. See you next year!