February 12, 2008

My favorite movies of 2007 on DVD

  Films I rented or saw on my DVD player


I always wanted to see this film that has been for a long time the object of a real cult among the European film critics that I respect. Unfortunately, it never benefited of a large commercial release in the U.S., although a new copy was re-released in a very few venues in 2007, including in Chicago. It is a very important film in the history of modern Spanish cinema, since it was one of the few in that delicate transition period that dared to brave the censorship of the Franco regime towards the end of his dictatorship in dealing with the painful subject of repression and fear during the terrible Spanish civil war. The story takes place in 1940 precisely at the end of the Civil War in a small Castilian village where to young sisters, Ana, the youngest played by the marvelous Ana Torrent, who was 7 year-old at the time of filming and became famous 3 years later in Carlos Saura’s “Cria Cuervos”, and 10 year-old Isabel, live in a big country house with their parents. We soon find out that the father, who’s life revolves entirely around his caring of and writing about bees, and the mother who writes letters to an unknown far-away lover and dreams of a more fulfilling life, do not have a happy life together and are not very caring about their daughters who spend a lot of time by themselves. The parents relationship obviously has been seriously impacted by the war. The visit to the village of a traveling picture show featuring the famous “Frankenstein” shot by James Whale in 1931 with Boris Karloff, is going to excite Ana’s imagination and phantasms to the highest point, since her sister makes her believe that a monster like Frankenstein’s lives nearby but is in fact a spirit, and can be met by being called by anybody who cries his or her name. Ana will look for him and find instead a wounded young man, a fugitive Republican soldier probably shot by the Guardia Civil, in an abandoned barn . She will believe that he is the reincarnation of the monster and will feed him and help him, until her parents bring her back home while she is traumatized by the experience. This beautiful but very melancholic film, shot by a great director of photography, Luis Cuadrado, who was progressively turning blind during the filming of this movie, is very lyrical and poetic, and sometimes flirts with an eerie expressionism. You will be haunted for a long time by the very moving musical score. It is too bad that Victor Erice shot only 3 feature films in 34 years. This one, his first, was followed by El Sur (The South) in 1983, and “Quince Tree of the Sun”, a beautiful essay on art in 1992. But “Spirit” is probably one of the most authentic masterpieces of the European cinema in the Seventies.

2. TOKYO EYES Jean-Pierre Limosin, (Japan-France, 1998)

I had read a lot about this director who made only 5 feature films, but is well-known for a few very good made-for-TV documentaries including portraits of famous Iranian director Kiarostami, and of legendary Japanese actor-director “Beat” Takeshi Kitano, who has a very funny cameo appearance as a not too bright Yakusa gangster in Tokyo Eyes. I had rented his interesting NOVO (2002), that tells in a very glossy and stylish way the sex and love adventures of an amnesic young man. But I did not expect such a thrilling and creative movie. TOKYO EYES , written by Limosin, was supposed to be shot in France with French actors. But Limosin, who is fascinated by Japan but does not speak the language, decided suddenly to instead shoot it entirely in Japan, with Japanese actors, and in Japanese. He took with him his very gifted director of photography Jean-Marie Fabre who created a very exciting and fast moving cinematography that reflects perfectly the local urban environment, and recalls the style of imagery and rhythm the great Australian cinematographer Christopher Doyle had created in “Chungking Express” in 1994. The story line is very entertaining: A young computer and video games programmer, K, played by the impressive Shinji Takeda, is a vigilante during his free time and shoots people, like bullies and night club bouncers, whose behavior he disapproves. But before shooting them he modifies his gun and wears very thick glasses that confuses his vision, so that he voluntarily misses his targeted victims. The sister of the policeman who is tracking this “faux-serial killer” nicknamed “four eyes”, a very sexy and alert young hairdresser played by Hinano Yoshikawa, a Japanese model and singer, is fascinated by this case that her brother does not seem to eager to solve. She manages to identify and to meet K, becomes his friend and gets romantically involved with him. He will eventually be fatally shot by his own gun in the hand of the small time gangster played by Kitano who fires it by accident. But K. seems to survives and will be reunited with Hinano in a very mysterious ending. The whole film is reminiscent of French New Wave films, especially Godard’s. At one point the girl is dressed like Anna Karina in a “Woman is a Woman”. This film is a pure cinephile’s delight.

3. LE PETIT LIEUTENANT Xavier Beauvois, (France, 2005) Xavier Beauvois,

whose 5 feature films have not been widely released in the U.S , is a 40 year-old man who left his native working class environment in Northern France to come to Paris to learn cinema, with the help of the great Jean Douchet, a famous movie critic and professor. After being the assistant director of André Téchiné, he reached relatively rapidly a good level of recognition in 1995 with his second feature film ‘‘ N’oublies pas que tu vas mourir’’, that was rewarded the coveted Prix Jean Vigo and the Jury Prize at the Cannes film fest, that touched both critics and general audiences with his lyrical but very restrained story of the daily life and relationships of an HIV-positive student in Paris. With this film, that was nominated for 6 Césars (the French equivalent of the Oscars), Beauvois reaches an almost perfect level of balance between a very precise narrative process, and a very efficient directing style, sometimes reminiscent of Techiné and Tavernier, but in a much more contemporary and austere way. His story describes the evolution of a charming but tough and ambitious young man, Antoine, played very convincingly by the very good Jalil Lespert whom we had discovered in ‘’Human Resources’’ who, as soon as he graduates from the police academy and after some work in a small provincial town’s police station, decides to go to Paris and volunteer to work as a detective (he has rank of lieutenant) in the crime department of a commissariat (district police headquarter). He leaves behind his young wife and his parents and friends. The first part of he film focuses on his discovery of the tough but sometimes boring routines of his new job, and his relations with other cops, among them Solo, played very efficiently by Roschdy Zem (‘’Indigenes’’). The description of his work and of his new life is described in a almost documentary style. It is probably one of the best depiction of what is really the daily life of a police station ever filmed. The second part is more focused on a specific investigation about the death of a poor immigrant Polish homeless man, found in the Seine river. And essentially about the relationship that Antoine develops with his boss, a veteran female police inspector who is recovering from alcoholism and the death of her son, who was the same age as Antoine’s. This role is perfectly played by Natalie Baye who was justly awarded the Cesar of the best actress. The cinematography by the super director of photography Caroline Champetier, one of the best in France, is very precise and avoids all easy clichés often found in the ‘’noir’’ or ‘’policier’’ genres.  

4. FREE ZONE Amos Gitai, (Israel, 2005)

I consider this Israeli director as one of the best story-teller in the present international cinema landscape. I still have vivid memories of the intensity of emotions I felt while watching some of his best films such as “Kippur”, “Kadosh”, “Kedma” or “Yom Yom”. Once again we are sharing the complex relations between individuals within the framework of the turmoils linked or derived from the Israeli-Palestinian, or Israeli-Arab conflicts. This time it is almost a “road movie” involving a very strong Israeli woman, Hanna, who drives a taxi, and her American passenger, another strong but emotionally disturbed woman called Rebecca, who insists to accompany Hanna to the “Free Zone” , a strange no-man’s land between the borders of Syria, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia, where all kinds of not necessarily legal business deals are negotiated. Hanna needs to drive there to collect an unpaid debt to her wounded husband from a former partner who sells military vehicles in that strange Free-Trade Zone. Rebecca needs some perspective to distance herself from her separation with an Israeli boyfriend who might have shown some nasty behavior against Palestinian refugees. They will find, when they finally reach their destination that both the man they are looking for and the money are gone. Hanna forces a Palestinian woman who works for him to drive with them and help in finding him. The rapidly changing nature of the relationship and of their initial personal objectives between these 3, culturally different, women is fascinating to follow. The Palestinian actress Hanna Laslo won the Best Actress at Cannes for her role as Hanna, but both Natalie Portman, and Hiam Abbass (“Paradise Now”) are equally convincing. At the beginning of the film that takes place near the famous Wall in Jerusalem, there is an extraordinary long take, in one shot, of Natalie Portman crying alone in the car, that is a piece of cinematic anthology. Besides, the shooting in this Arab zone by an Israeli film director constitutes in itself a premiere.

5. QUAND LA MER MONTE (WHEN THE SEA RAISES) Yolande Moreau and Gilles Porte (Belgium, France, 2004)

Sort of a masterpiece in a minor genre, this gem of a very touching, and beautifully written and directed film, was perhaps my best surprise of the year when I rented it from Netflix. I knew Yolande Moreau, a Belgian comedian with both an unusual physical appearance and a unique way to phrase her sentences, after having seen her many times on French Television in the very popular farcical short sitcoms series “ Les Deschiens". In the early eighties she also wrote, directed , and played in a one-woman travelling show, “Sale Affaire, du sexe et du crime” (Dirty business, sex and crime). She personified a very plain, low-middle class woman who has just killed her lover and shares her feelings about it with the audience. In this film, her first that she co-directs with Gilles Porte, a director of several short films, she recreates her life when she traveled from cities to villages in Northern France and Southern Belgium, on both sides of the border. She plays her original role in front of real audiences that are filmed live by Porte. She talks at night from her modest hotel or motel rooms on the phone with her husband about redecoration he tries to do in their house, and with her child. At the same time she develops an intriguing and almost surreal relationship with a member of her audience, Dries (played by Wim Willaert a very good Flemish actor with a strange accent), who is a “giant carrier”, drinks a lot, and starts to follow her from town to town. They will have a brief but complicated romantic liaison. The job of “giant carrier” (porteur de géant) is unique to this part of Europe where giant folkloric and comic figures made of papier-maché and light wood are walked around during local festivals and celebrations of all kinds. Dries’s giant, name Totor, plays an important part in the story. The cinematography by Gilles Porte himself captures in a very authentic way , and visually stunning style, the particularly lively atmosphere (and cheerful behavior of its people) of this region around Armentières, Béthune, and Lille. A very heart-warming experience.

6. LES TEMOINS (THE WITNESSES) André Téchiné, (France, 2006)

This film that just got its first theatrical release in New-York City in February 2008, should be available from Netflix, and released in some theaters, pretty soon. I obtained a DVD from Europe through a friend. The 21st film of Techiné’s very interesting and consistent career, is perhaps, along with ‘’Wild Reeds’’ (Les Roseaux Sauvages, 1994), his most personal work . According to some comments he made to the press when the film was presented to the Berlin Film Festival in January 2007, he had to do this film as a reflexion on that period in the mid eighties when AIDS became a pandemic worldwide, including France, when several of his personal friends were affected by the virus and died, but he was himself spared from that curse. What he witnessed at that time left a deep mark in his perception of why some people survive and some die. In some ways you already find this subject treated at a different level in both “Wild Reeds” and the very moving “Les Egarés’’ (‘’Strayed’’, 2004). Here we have a story in 3 phases: 1. In Paris in 1984 Sarah (beautiful Emmanuelle Béart) writes children books but has a problem to adjust to her new condition of mother. Her husband, Mehdi (Sami Bouajila) a tough vice-squad policeman of Maghrebian origin has a problem understanding her lack of focus and patience with the newborn child. At the same time a very naive and charming provincial young man Manu (Johan Libéreau), arrives in Paris and decides, against her will, to live in his sister’s room, ana aspiring opera singer (a very convincing Julie Depardieu) in a cheap hotel full of prostitutes while he looks for a job. In fact he spends more time looking for brief sexual encounters in gay meeting places. That is how he meets a doctor, Adrien (Michel Blanc) a very close friend of Sarah, who falls in love with him and takes him home. 2. Manu is introduced by Adrien to Mehdi and Sarah. During a week-end in the Mediterranean villa of Sarah’s parents Mehdi saves Manu from drowning, and later engages in a very passionate relationship with him. But Manu gets sick (HIV Aids) without knowing exactly what happens to him and while continuing his sexual affair with Mehdi. Adrien, the Doctor, tries to help Manu who does not seem to care. Adrien becomes the leader of a medical research team that works on the new pandemic and tries to fight it and inform the public. He gets through rough times with Mehdi. 3. Manu dies. Mehdi finds out that he is not infected. He tells the truth to Sarah about his relationship with Manu and she decides to write a novel about it after reading his journal relating the progress of his disease. Life goes on. In spite of such a painful subject, Techiné tells his story with restraint and precision, without a trace of moral or social judgment. The film is never a tear-jerker and avoids ambiguous situations or elliptical editing. It is not a masterpiece, but it is a model of story-telling and professional directing.  

7. TOSCA Benoit Jacquot, (Italy, France, Germany, 2001)

I am usually totally allergic to filmed opera, especially the Franco Zeffirelli type. But I do not mind an intelligent cinematic adaptation of a good opera, as it was the case with Joseph Losey's "Don Giovanni", or Bergman's "Magic Flute". In the case of Tosca, Benoit Jacquot who is a very competent, sensible, and eclectic director with a 30 year-long career (La Désenchantée, La Fille Seule, l’Ecole de la Chair, A Tout de Suite, Sade, Intouchable) who openly confessed that he strongly disliked Italian Opera, has taken a very different approach: making a good film for cinephiles who do not have to be opera-lovers to appreciate this fully cinematographic reflexion on melodrama, a bit like Resnais did it in Private Fear in Public Places. But it never reaches the point of becoming too didactic or a caricature of the ultimate melodramatic opera, precisely because the cinematic qualities of the melodrama are given a more important priority than its purely operatic ones. His idea was to shoot in beautiful natural settings, located mainly in Germany, very good professional opera singers, ‘’acting’’ the opera and at the same time showing us black and white video clips of the same artists in ‘’civilian’’ clothes, recording the music in a studio, under the direction of conductor Antonio Papanno. Sometimes when the singers-actors are shot in close-ups, some too obvious post-dubbing and lip-synch problems become a bit annoying. But the quality of the cinematography by Romain Winding, the elegance of the direction and the intense acting performances of Angela Gheorghiu (as Tosca), of Roberto Alagna (as the painter Cavaradossi) in less convincing way, and above all of Ruggero Raimondi, in a scary very impressive almost Shakespearian interpretation of Scarpia, the nasty Rome’s Chief of Police who wants to exchange the life of the painter for an affair with Tosca, make us actually ‘’feel’’ their respective passions and torments. Raimondi was also a great actor in Losey’s Don Giovanni, and in the "Carmen" made by Francesco Rossi, a good Italian director.

8. BLISSFULLY YOURS Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Thailand, 2005)

I was totally mesmerized by the serene but almost mystical and hallucinated beauty of "Tropical Malady", the third film by this young Thai director, who studied cinema at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago. A large part of it was taking place in a tropical forest in Thailand, and the sound track was spectacular. It was No. 7 in my list of favorite films seen in 2005 published on this blog. This time we are again watching a very sinuous, very slow moving like in a dream, progression of three people, one man and two women, in a heavenly Thai forest. A couple, a man suffering from a terrible rash all over his body who might be an illegal Burmese worker and a woman who tries to both obtain a work permit for him and to relieve his anxiety and pain, go for a picnic by a river and some sexual interlude, in the forest. They will be joined by a second woman and engage in a strange and sometimes sad relation with her. . It is impossible to really describe a story that is so unconventionally told. But I can assure you that the lighting, the sounds, the rhythm of the camera movements in this film are incredibly beautiful. But you need to accept the ‘’ mood’’ of this movie and be patient, otherwise you may hate it, and that would be too bad.  

9. GABRIELLE Patrice Chéreau (France, 2005) For many years Patrice Chéreau

was better known in France as a stage and opera director. He is also an actor and a script-writer, But since his first feature film in 1975, ‘’Flesh and the Orchid’’ an adaptation from the famous J.H Chase’s ‘’No Orchids for Miss Blandish’’ with Charlotte Rampling, Simone Signoret, Alida Valli and Bruno Cremer, he has become a darling of both critics and spectators, for his great ability to direct actors and particularly actresses in very complex, uneasy, passionate, and generally tense and dramatic love stories. He also got very good response in the U.S, where he taught film on the East Coast for a while, for films such as the beautiful ‘’Queen Margot’’ (1994), Intimacy (2001) and "Those who love me will take the train" (1998). "Gabrielle" is only his 10th feature film (he also directed several plays and operas for Television), but to me it is one of the most brilliantly ‘’ mis en scene’’ (directed). Adapted from ‘’The Return’’, a short novel by Joseph Conrad, is very precisely describing the catastrophic tragedy of errors that occurs when a ‘’bourgeoise’’ played perfectly portrayed by Isabelle Huppert, tries to leave her wealthy but vain and pretentious upper-class husband (great actor Pascal Gregory) after 10 years of a loveless marriage. She leaves a letter for him in their luxurious mansion explaining that she is leaving him for another man (a pretentious journalist whom her husband hates), but for no reason changes her mind and comes back home to retrieve it before he reads it... but too late. Their ensuing confrontations will be terrible, even during a fancy party where they entertain high-society guests, including her lover. Like in a Bergman or Visconti film, the tensions are going up, and down while the mansion’s servants try to keep the situation under control. All this is beautifully orchestrated in sumptuous framing and camera movements, and the acting is so painfully precise that it leaves you nervously exhausted at the end that I will not reveal. Quite a job...  

10. MARIE-ANTOINETTE Sofia Coppola (USA, 2006)

Why did almost half of the American film critics (a few even booed at its premiere at the Cannes Festival) pan this very creative, beautifully shot, and very astute movie goes beyond my comprehension... As a matter of fact I did not see the film when it was released in Chicago’s theaters in 2006, in spite of my being intrigued by the trailers, because I was influenced by some bad reviews. It was a poor decision on my part. I would have enjoyed it even more if had watched those splendid shots and bold camera movements in glorious colors on a big screen and listened to the great soundtrack, with its provocative mix of baroque and pop music from a good sound system. Perhaps some critics did not like the film because Sofia Coppola dared to do something completely different than in her previous successful pictures, especially ‘’Lost in transaltion’’. But is it really so different from the point of view on modern young women she ha s been trying to give since the ‘’The Virgin Suicides’’ . As Roger Ebert rightly wrote in his 4 stars review of Oct 20, 2006: "Nobody cares if the film does not always respect the real historical facts. It is a very contemporary reflection, made by a film-maker, not an historian, about a teenager ahead of her time, who is in a state of complete refusal of the role court people and her family expect her to play, and at the same time wants as a sort of revenge against the decadence and the moral corruption that surrounds her, to find an escape in a passionate search of pleasures". Kirsten Dunst is very charming in the title role. But I enjoyed Rip Torn as Louis XV, Danny Huston as Marie-Antoinette’s brother and Asia Argento as Madame Du Barry even more. Needless to say, the scenery is stunning. The film was actually shot on location at the Versailles Palace, and in other castles of the Paris area. some scenes were even shot inside the Opera Garnier in Paris. The dialogues are often very funny, and the numerous pastries, actually baked by the famous Parisian pastry chef Ladurée , are mouth watering. Alain Maes, February 2008


  1. Alain, I have not seen the others, but I do agree with you about Marie Antoinette. What a delight to watch. It's been nearly a year since I've seen it, but I have the DVD and I think it might be just the antidote to this long and white and gray season that is upon us.

    I will mention the others to my film-buff husband and see if we can track them down. The only other one I was even aware of was "Gabrielle."

  2. Anonymous8:31 PM

    alain, envoie-moi ton adresse (e-mail). je voudrais te poser une question. richard