Flight of the Red Balloon
So the Oscar talk has prompted me to finally, belatedly put together a list of films I liked from last year. Apologies in advance for a few clips without English subtitles.
(WARNING: SPOILERS. EVERYWHERE.)
16. Zodiac (David Fincher; USA)
CGI effects are as good a place to start as any when it comes to Zodiac – here’s a demonstration of how most of them fly right by you. Almost every nighttime outdoor scene (and there are a lot of them) was in fact filmed in front of a blue screen, with the background added in later.
It doesn’t make the film any better or worse to know this trivia. But it should be undeniable that a painstaking amount of planning went toward crafting what ends up on screen – a fact that feeds directly into its two standout qualities:
First, the cumulative visual impact. Too often, moviegoers mistake looking great – i.e., being photogenic, and perhaps featuring lots of striking or even iconic shots – with some kind of visual greatness. It’s not enough to look good. Instead, the visual element of Zodiac – bled-out colors and pervasive darkness, symbols and cues that lock into its motif of cryptography, the matter-of-fact consideration for juxtaposition and rhythm in its sequencing of images – forms its own kind of narrative, provoking a series of emotional responses often separate from the screenplay. See the rest of the list after the jump! [Continue reading…]
Second, the film is not conventionally satisfying the way most thrillers are – instead, it’s the work, the gathering and sorting of information that provides the dramatic thrust. The above-mentioned meticulousness and precision of the film’s own construction provides an entry point into those concerns, demanding that the audience watch for and prescribe significance to subtleties on screen. Its most tense moments play off the fact that the audience is actively watching, although very little may be actually happening. It’s a cliche by now to point out that Zodiac is a film made by an obsessive filmmaker about obsession. Perhaps it’s more useful to say that what both Fincher and his protagonist fetishize are order and methodology, and because of that (and despite its many flaws), few films have pored over this corner of the human mind in quite the way Zodiac has.
15. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Andrew Dominik; USA)
Despite the obvious Malick influence, I think this series of voice-over heavy scenes goes to show that Jesse James makes much more sense in reference to Kubrick than to Days of Heaven or Badlands. It’s been disparaged as a three-hour book on tape, but wasn’t that the point of Barry Lyndon? In fact, Casey Affleck’s Robert Ford bears more than one character trait of Ryan O’Neal’s Barry.
Not that any of this holds a candle to Kubrick – just that the tone Dominik strikes has similar advantages. The train robbery at 3:21 in the above clip, it must be said, is up there with the best stuff any filmmaker’s got to offer.
14. The Lives of Others (Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck; Germany)
The Lives of Others is really superior entertainment, and an embarrassment to most other recent thrillers. Part of the reason why is the consummate worksmanship displayed in its set-ups and payoffs (most of them spinning out from the central conceit, of a man assigned to spy on another man in what was then Eastern Germany). The other reason is that the thrills are earned, the sense of danger and loss palpable because the audience is compelled to believe that the characters, and what happens to them, matter.
The film’s secret is not its humanism per se. Its ideas are rather broad good vs. evil/individual vs. society type stuff, the kind of sap that lesser films would drown themselves in. Take the above. First, a man mourning the death of his friend (indirectly at the hands of the authoritarian government) via playing the piano presents an emotional land mine in and of itself. This action then manages to soften the heart of his Stasi spy. What next? The man asks: “Can anyone who has heard this music, I mean truly heard it, really be a bad person?” This would normally get multiple winces, but the film’s secret is how it takes otherwise obvious questions and well-worn tropes, and makes them feel desperately urgent.
13. I Don’t Want To Sleep Alone (Tsai Ming-Liang; Taiwan)
What’s missing from this trailer is the way this shot begins: Nothing but a still pool of water (a “lake” in the middle of a construction site, as beautifully seen here); then, some strange object begins to patiently float downward from the top of the screen – for a good few seconds you have no idea what it is. The slow unfurling revelation in itself is half the magic; the other half is the way it flips what should be a bleak film about loneliness into a surreal and almost playful moment of closure. Could have been the most memorable final shot last year.
12. Flight of the Red Balloon (Hou Hsiao-Hsien; Taiwan)
This runs (an admittedly distant) runner-up to the stunning, Malickian first teaser for
style=”font-style: italic;”>There Will Be Blood as far as self-complete trailers from last year go. The actual film is not as whimsical or emotionally engaging – in fact, I found myself increasingly impatient with its unremarkable subject matter and stubbornly detached tone. (Hou’s last, Three Times, may have also been slowly paced, but transfixed me with its unspoken intensity between characters and clear purpose in visual storytelling).
Scene after meandering scene of watching this harried mother, her young son, and their new nanny walking around Paris for the most quotidian of reasons, taking no particular interest in each other, and confronting an equally uninteresting conflict involving the boy’s father – at first it all leaves one (though admiring its eye for scenery and small moments) slightly aloof. I didn’t realize how content I was until I stepped out of the theater, which suddenly gave me the always-welcome sensation of cold water being splashed onto my face.
I’m not sure how much I want to ever have a beer with the guy – but more than those of any other filmmaker, I’d like to walk the streets of Hou’s films. They (like those of his fellow countryman, Tsai Ming-Liang) are ultimately more than the sums of their respective parts, slyly imposing onto the audience the peculiar way their maker looks at the world – namely, Hou’s profound, almost Daoist appreciation for everyday details. The rhythm of ordinary sights and actions becomes a pleasure in and of itself; it’s hard to leave a screening and not, for a moment, carry that out with you.
11. The Host (Bong Joon-Ho; Korea)
The first time you see it, you see all of it – motionless, in broad daylight. The next part of the scene, as the bystanders bystand, is classic monster movie stuff, right down to the tension/release timing of the tentacle threateningly snatching the floating beer can in the water.
Usually, the rules state that the first attack has to be some poor schmuck or pair of schmucks by themselves, at night or in some other isolated environs. Something will flash out from the corner of the screen, too fast and blurry to make out; there will be screams; the audience will be left scintillated.
But who need tricks when you can just say: “Here’s a fucking monster.”
So from the moment you see it lumbering toward the camera, there’s that same elated stab people probably felt back when the rules were being made up in the first place.
10. No End in Sight (Charles Ferguson; USA)
Though other Iraq documentarians have proven adept at finding human stories and putting cameras in front of faces, they’ve also either ignored or struggled with the legwork required to provide any larger context beyond the scope of outrage.
Then there’s Charles Ferguson, a reputable academic with a resume that includes a doctorate from MIT and three years at the Brookings Institute (and who supported the initial invasion), who in his first try irrefutably proves the Bush administration’s incompetence in handling the first months of the invasion.
First, he gets all the right interviews – the officials initially put in charge of Iraq, a few well-picked journalists and experts, and higher-ups that even include former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage. But No End in Sight‘s strength, as the above clip shows, is in the clarity of its arguments and explications. All the brambles and historical amnesia are pushed aside; it amounts to a historical document that one could pass on to the next generation’s classrooms.
9. Secret Sunshine (Lee Chang-Dong; Korea)
Minutes 1 through 5 of this clip are as emotionally tumultuous as it gets (and mostly wordless, so don’t worry about the lack of English subtitles). The female protagonist’s son has just been kidnapped and murdered (films about kidnapping are practically their own subgenre in Korea). She’s been devastated and withdrawn since, and this scene marks the previously unreligious woman’s unexpected re-entrance into society.
It’s refreshing how Lee Chang-Dong eschews formal experimentation for a commitment to human complexities. One of the successes of this scene is that it reminds you of a lingering emotional falseness in the setting – the band, the cheesy graphics – while delivering genuine and thorough catharsis.
The character’s transformation afterward, as she becomes involved with the local church and finally finds herself able to recover and communicate with others again (or, it is suggested, perhaps for the first time), makes a surprising argument for religion’s irreplaceable power to support and connect people while other societal institutions fail.
It’s usually enough for a film to have one crystallizing moment like this, but Secret Sunshine turns out to have two, and the next one is even more powerful precisely because it turns this first idea on its head: When our protagonist makes the crucial and Christian decision to forgive her son’s killer in prison, he reveals that he’s happy to have recently found – and so already been forgiven by – the dear Lord as well. Suddenly, horrifyingly, religion is no longer the crutch it seemed.
8. Once (John Carney; Ireland)
The only thing I hate more than feel-good indies are me-first whiners with acoustic guitars.
Still, the remarkably grounded Once captures something about live music and the creative impulse (and dare I say, the struggle of mediocrity) that few non-documentary films have attempted to. Or, that’s what I keep telling myself.
7. The Wind That Shakes the Barley (Ken Loach; Ireland)
For one, The Wind That Shakes the Barley makes immediate the consequences and brutality of its subject – no small feat for any historical epic. Furthermore, though historical epics as a genre tend to be pretty uninterested in history itself, Ken Loach considers some very complicated and uneasy arguments with his retelling of the Irish War of Independence and subsequent Irish Civil War.
After heart wrenching sacrifices are shown to be made in the cause of the revolution, this
debate scene encapsulates the splintering of opinion as to why, exactly, the war was being fought in the first place, and how its fighters envision the future of their country. The uproar of the Anglo-Irish treaty will soon lead to civil war. Now, Loach is a pretty unapologetic socialist, and the audience is meant to side with the more radical faction embodied in Cillian Murphy’s character – but the fact that he sides with the historical losers, if you will (the victory by supporters of the Anglo-Irish treaty didn’t ultimately prevent Ireland from gaining independence some years later), and that Loach shows such empathy for both sides, is what keeps the film from being neither propaganda nor a neutered universal tale.
6. Killer of Sheep (Charles Burnett; USA)
In the 1970s, a UCLA film student by the name of Charles Burnett shot his MFA thesis down in Watts, over about a year’s worth of weekends. The film was released theatrically for the first time last year, after finally securing music rights.
There is the cultural significance of it essentially being the only well-known black art film from that era, sure, and the unique way it updates the Italian neorealist formula of the 1950s to address South Central Los Angeles some two decades later. And you’ll be hard-pressed to find a more immediately likeable and sympathetic protagonist than the down-on-his-luck title character.
But one reason we love film is its inherent sight-and-sound ability to approximate a visceral, living experience. And so the part of Killer of Sheep that stays on for me are those shots of children playing in the streets of Watts – racing down alleys, dirt on their shoes, and perfectly framed.
5. No Country For Old Men (Joel and Ethan Coen; USA)
My two favorite things about the coin-toss scene:
1) Javier Bardem’s character as newspaper-editor-like defender of the English language. “You already asked me that”; “‘Now’ is not a time”; “You don’t know what you’re talking about, do you?”; and, my favorite, “I don’t have some way to ‘put it.’ That’s the way it is.”
2) The expanding wrapper at 2:38.
4. Still Life (Jia Zhang-Ke, China)
One could argue for Jia Zhang-ke’s current standing as the world’s most socially important filmmaker, as he insistently confronts the human cost of globalization in a country where expression is censored, yet where change hurtles forth on an internationally unsettling scale.
The backdrop of Still Life is the ongoing construction of the Three Gorges Dam, a massive project which has already wiped out entire towns and displaced a million and a half people. It’s in this environment that two separated couples seek each other out for reasons of personal resolution. Above all, the viewer is never allowed to forget the characters’ often painful struggle to hold onto their humanity, amidst all the mechanized chaos and rubble.
3. Syndromes and a Century (Apitchatpong Weerasethakul; Thailand)
The course of Apitchatpong Weerasethakul’s career, and indeed of the individual films he’s made, is one of variation in repetition. Most of his films can be said to feature: shape-shifting characters who turn into animals, portrayals of sexual longing or acts, musical performances, escape from civilization into rural areas, local superstition (or mysticism), and acts of storytelling. Even further, each film is divided into halves (or, in the case of Mysterious Object at Noon, multiple partitions), inducing this kind of variation in repetition within the same film.
Dualism is the primary vehicle for Syndromes and a Century, which tells two love stories set in Thai hospitals 40 years apart, using the same actors and much of the same dialogue.
The dialogue in this scene, retelling a story about a lake that fills up with gold and silver, is not repeated within the film, but instead taken from a similar story told within Weerasethakul’s Tropical Malady (albeit in that version, the story has a different ending). The most striking part here is the solar eclipse from 1:34 to 2:13. The image itself is echoed in a sequence at the end of the film, which moves to inspect an open suction pipe in a hospital boiler room with a near-sacred reverence. But in this instance, the eclipse is part of the story-within-a-story, an illustration of, again, local mysticism that shuns urban conventions: “This is a powerful place. No matter what people do, no matter what we do, something always watches us.”
2. Regular Lovers (Philippe Garrel; France)
A film by and for The Sixties. When former Nouvelle Vague figure Philippe Garrel throws on The Kinks, he’s not adopting Wes Anderson’s Oedipus complex for an era that never loved him, but reliving that same cultural revolution he can rightfully claim a part of (see the self-aware jump cut at 1:27, which takes you nowhere at all, other than to the idea of the jump cut itself); when Garrel later plays a Nico song, he’s remembering not Nico the fashionable symbol, but the very “regular lover” he had a ten-year professional and romantic relationship with.
Regular Lovers is so deliberately slow and aimless that it will drive most to exasperation; it’s necessary to surrender to the idea that the film uses time as part of its argument. Garrel’s three-hour meditation warps back into the haze of his presumably drug-fueled youth in Paris, of the student-led protests of May 1968 and their aftermath (that “69” is no mere building number), of that paradoxical conflict between world-is-your oyster limitless possibility and suffocating entrapment which marks every post-adolescence worth its salt – of that feeling of being a member of the only generation of young people to have ever lived, and lost.
1. Silent Light (Carlos Reygadas; Mexico)
Here is the capital-G Great film that even Carlos Reygadas’s outspoken detractors were waiting for him to make, a perfect storm in which his previously too-uncompromising talents have finally been disciplined into something transcendant.
I hope the trailer hints at (there’s a Spanish-subtitled version that highlights better scenes) how a sense of almost otherworldly power looms over Silent Light‘s static and often mundane trappings. It’s a feeling that loses some steam in the film’s middle act, along with the narrative, but the patience-thinning of its geological pace, I think, only redoubles the force of the conclusion. The plot is set in a religious Mennonite community in northern Mexico (hence the Plautdietsch dialogue and Spanish subtitles), and cursorily about a married man who falls in love with another woman. I’ll leave you with three scenes:
*The opening shot of a sunrise, glimpsed briefly in the above-linked Spanish trailer, performs no less than the miracle of Genesis in a mere six or seven continuous minutes.
*The family’s routine excursion to bathe in a creek becomes material for a visually ecstatic set piece. It’s the kind of balanced idyll that’s difficult to convey with mere words, as if the down-by-the-river enlightenment at the end of Weerasethakul’s Blissfully Yours were instead to be a narrative’s starting point.
*The final, irreversible shudder that finishes off the rest of the film’s slow, inevitable shifting of tectonic plates: An unlikely family reunion springboards a go-for-broke climax, one that boldly meets life, death, God, and all the rest of it head-on.
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