January 15, 2007


MY FAVORITES FILMS OF 2006 Stéphane, This vintage year was no better, I’m afraid, than 2005. A few independent good American productions ranked above the mediocrity of the commercial crap that the Hollywood machine inundated the world market with. So, once again I had to rely on NETFLIX to see half a dozen great films, since I did not go to France in 2006 and was therefore deprived of my regular blood transfusions. You will find two separate lists here below. The first one of films I have seen in Chicago theaters. The second one of films I rented and saw at home on my DVD player. In any case, let’s hope that the 30 interesting foreign films that were screened in various film festivals in 2006, Cannes, Venice, Toronto, Berlin, etc. will eventually be distributed in the U.S. either in DVD, or shown in “art houses” or local mini-festivals. LIST 1: Films I have seen in Chicago theaters: 1.THE ILLUSIONIST Neil Burger, USA I am usually a bit skeptical about indie films shot in period costumes and in foreign ‘’decors” pretending to be big budget movies with relatively well-known actors but directed by practically unknown new directors. But this time I was more than pleasantly surprised by the mastery of Neil Burger (his only other film was “Interview with the assassin”) in creating an authentic and visually stunning romantic film. Adapted from a short story by Millhauser taking place in Vienna around 1900, it allows Burger to demonstrate an incredibly assured talent in story-telling, actors directing (both Edward Norton as the magician and Paul Giamatti as the Vienna police chief inspector are very convincing), and above all in creating shots that almost reminded me at times of the directing style of Max Ophuls and Visconti. Besides this tale of intrigue, deception, class differences, beauty, and ‘’magic’’, is also one of the most exciting love story I have seen on an American screen for a long time. And I am ready to bet that the leading lady, Jessica Biel, will be seen again in a bigger role in a not too distant future. 2. THREE TIMES Hou Hsiao Hsien, Taiwan HHH is one of my favorite Asian directors. Some of his previous films, like “Flowers of Shanghai”, “Good Men Good Women”, “Goodbye South, Goodbye”, or “Puppet Master”, are considered by many film critics as small masterpieces. This time we are dealing with a very challenging stylistic essay. HHH tells three different stories taking place in Taiwan in 1966, 1911, and 2005 and dealing with the traditional Asian themes of self-respect, individual independence, and love. But the originality of the treatment comes from the fact that the two lead-actors playing the major parts in each segment are the same ones. A real tour de force since they manage to adopt completely different personas and physical looks in each episode. Visually spectacular. 3. THE FORSAKEN LAND Vimukhti Jayasundara, Sri Lanka In 2005 my big surprise of the year was a film coming from Thailand: “Tropical Malady”. This year the cultural surprise comes from a director from Sri Lanka, Vimukthi Jayasundara, who describes the very difficult, painful, and sometimes explosive relationships between the members of a very dysfunctional family. The father, a depressed and not too motivated reserve soldier, his sister and his adulterous wife live in a decrepit house in the middle of a desolate no man’s land at the end of a civil war fragile cease-fire. The way his camera explore the desolate landscape around the house is sometimes deliberately slow and irritating, but this film nevertheless offers a very rich study of the supernatural dimensions space, sounds, and real time, can reach in serious cinematographic “mise en scene”. I sometimes thought of Bergman’s “The Silence” while watching this haunting movie. 4. THE DEPARTED Martin Scorsese, U.S.A. He is back to great shape. One of the most gifted and intelligent directors of his generation is reaching the top of his art in this fast paced, very stimulating, and visually eye-popping saga describing the daily dangerous lives of two moles, one infiltrated by a mob boss in the police headquarters, and the other by the police in the same gangster’s organization. It is sometimes pure thriller, sometimes almost documentary style. I was not that thrilled by Matt Damon’s job, but Leonardo di Caprio demonstrates in a very convincing way the very wide scope of his acting talent. And it is good to see Martin Sheen, as the police captain, in a deeply thoughtful role that is way better that his tired depiction of the president in the “West Wing”. As the old mobster, Jack Nicholson once again is often overplaying, but he is obviously enjoying himself tremendously in one of the most ambiguous roles of his long career. But all the supporting actors are also wonderful. As in most Scorsese films, the cinematography and editing technique are top notch. By the way, this film is a very faithful remake of a very good movie from Hong Kong: “Infernal Affairs”. 5. STRANGER THAN FICTION Marc Foster, U.S.A When I saw its trailers in a theater, I thought this film was going to get on my nerves. But, in spite of its many script implausibilities and sometimes too far-fetched or over-scripted situations, I got totally captivated by the charm of this romantic comedy-drama, that is very cleverly directed by German-born Marc Forster, whose previous big success, “Monster’s Ball”, I had not seen. He has a very uncommon fluid way to control the narrative process of the complex story line (an IRS auditor is persuaded that his life and possibly upcoming death are written and programmed by a book writer) and he astutely balances the playing styles of his very unusually cast actors. Will Ferrell, of SNL fame, proves that he is much more than an accomplished TV comedian. Dustin Hoffman, as a professor of literature transformed against his will as a sort of shrink, finds one of his most interesting roles in recent years. And Maggie Gyllenhaal, as the baker and love interest with a very strong independent personality, projects one of the best feminine presence I have seen in an American movie for a long time. Only Emma Thompson, as the neurotic author, did not entirely convince me that she was not miscast. But the role of her “assistant” is played in a very subdued but efficient and original way by Queen Latifah. In any cases, it is one of the few recent American films that leaves you excited, both emotionally and intellectually, for many hours after you have left the theater. 6. VOLVER Pedro Alomodovar, Spain From “Matador” and “Labyrinth of Passions” in 1982 and 1996 to “All about my mother” and “Talk to her” ( 2002) , I have always considered the Spaniard Pedro Almodovar as one of the most accomplished author-directors of the European cinema. He is a master not only in the art of framing and in his very personal use of colors to express emotions and symbols. But he is above all probably the best director of women since Ingmar Bergman. It is very interesting to note that this very passionate man, whose defense of sexual plurality has been a trademark in many of his films, has probably written the best and most psychologically intricate parts, often involving very demanding and “risqué” situations, an adult or even mature actress can dream of. We are involved once again in a very melodramatic story where a provincial and bored housewife, a superb Penelope Cruz, tries to cover for her daughter who has accidentally killed her father who was trying to rape her. The process involves other women and neighbors in various locations including her native village, and even this woman’s mother (Carmen Maura) that everybody thought she was dead. The whole film is a delightful and balanced exercise between reality and phantasms, love and despair, life and death, tragedy and black humor, in a typical Spanish way. A must see. 7. THE AURA Fabien Bielinski, Argentina Bielinski, another Spanish-speaking writer-director, this time from Argentina, died suddenly in his mid-forties shortly after completing the editing of this movie. It is sad because The Aura was only his second feature film and it is so extraordinary, both in terms of storytelling and of cinematic values, that you will always wonder what kind of wonderful career he might have developed. Even though it could be described as a gangster noir film, it is in fact more of an almost surreal tale of the adventures of an epileptic man, a taxidermist dreaming of the perfect bank robbery, who get caught in an infernal situation involving the heist of a casino during a hunting trip with another man in the forests of Patagonia. The rhythm of the movie is disconcerting, sometimes very dreamy and slow moving, sometimes violent and nightmarish. But the mood and the description of the relationship between men, nature, and violence are very absorbing. It can sometimes evoke the memory of films lake “Deliverance” and “Tropical Malady”. 8. PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION Robert Altman, U.S.A. I am not an unconditional fan of Altman. I think that some of his films like “Mc Cabe and Mrs. Miller”, “Nashville”, “The Wedding”, “The long Goodbye”, ‘‘Short Cuts”, or “Gosford Park”, are little treasures of the American cinema. But many others, like “The Company” , “Prêt à porter”, “Come back to Five and Dime”, are in my opinion either poorly scripted, lazily directed, or totally boring. This is why I am so happy that the last film he completed before dying a couple of months ago, will be recognized as one of his best. It renews with the tradition of “Nashville” and its to-ings and fro-ings, chance encounters, frustrated performers and lovers, impromptu funny dialogs, and above all this particular and contagious love that Altman had for his actors, who almost constituted an “ensemble”. Garrison Keillor brings such a forceful natural presence to his own “character” that you actually believe that you are participating in one of his shows. Besides, he proves to be a “natural” wonderful actor. Kevin Kline is marvelous as Guy Noir, but the other members of the cast, Lily Tomlin and Meryl Streep as a very "painful" sisters singing duet, John C. Reilly, Maya Rudolph, and Tommy Lee Jones as the bad Texan guy, are equally stimulating. The strange number by Virginia Madsen was a bit out of place and style. But do yourself a favor and rent that very satisfying film on a quiet winter Sunday night. 9. THE THREE BURIALS OF MELQUIADES ESTRADA Tony Lee Jones, U.S.A I have been so frustrated by the complete disappearance of the “western” film genre from American screens for the last quarter of a century that this first directorial endeavor by an iconic American actor was a real treat for me. As a matter of fact I cannot wait to see it a second time on DVD to catch all the subtleties of the script, the editing, and the actors direction of this very exciting piece of pure cinema I missed when I saw it in a theater. I was probably too absorbed by both the storyline and the beauty of the cinematography by the very gifted Chris Menges. This scenario, written by the author of “Amores Perros”, is based on some true facts, and it involves a Texas rancher (Tommy Lee Jones) who forces a border patrolman (Barry Pepper) who killed his Mexican employee and friend, the Estrada of the title, to travel with him and the semi-mummified corpse to the native Mexican village where he wants to honor his promise to bury him there. Of course they will face many obstacles on their journey through mountains and deserts. The stunning landscapes of South Western Texas, just North of the Rio Grande where the film was shot are close to Jones’s own place of birth. All the elements of a “western” from the late fifties are revived here, but, since it takes place in the late nineties, there is definitely an added touch of very contemporary cynical and political point of view. 10. L’ARMEE DES OMBRES (ARMY OF SHADOWS) Jean-Pierre Melville, France (1969) I missed this film when it was released in Paris in June of 1969 (Stéphane, you will probably understand why…) and I always felt frustrated by this gap in my extended knowledge and admiration of most (but not all) 14 Melville’s films, since I had read many times that it was probably not only his best film but also the best film ever made on the subject of the French Resistance to the nazi occupation between 1940 and 1944. As you know Stéphane, my early childhood years took place in occupied France and I have always been fascinated by stories, and movies, related to this painful period of our history. So when this first complete version (sort of a director’s cut) was released for the first time in the U.S. in April 2006, I was very happy to find out that not only it was an incredibly fresh and contemporary piece of cinema, but also that the situations and characters described in this film were able to have a very deep emotional impact on me 63 years after they occurred. It is impossible to encapsulate the very complex story line. The film is based both on Joseph Kessel’s book of the same title published in a clandestine way in 1943, and on Melville’s own experience as an active resistance fighter when he was a young man. So all the events, the daily life episodes, and the extreme dangers faced by the “resistants” described in this film are based on real people and authentic stories. The cinematography, in fascinating cold blue-grey hues that became a trademark of some of the Melville’s films (like “The Samourai”) and the very precise scene-cutting and final editing, could be discussed in film schools as examples of close to perfection film-making. And above all the direction of some of the best French actors of the late fifties and sixties (Lino Ventura, Paul Meurisse, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Paul Crochet, Serge Reggiani, and an incredible performance as Mathilde by the great Simone Signoret) is masterful. A gem not to be missed. Do not be late since the first 2 minutes are breathtaking. Runner ups: L’ENFANT Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Belgium Originally this film was in my 10 best list. But I realized that I did not like it with the same enthusiasm that I felt for “ROSETTA”, or “Le FILS” the two precedent films by the Belgian brothers. This story of a “childish’’ unemployed and not too bright young man (Jeremie Renier, who was the adolescent “star” of the Dardenne first feature film, “ La promesse”) , also a small-time thief and wheeler-dealer, who decides to sell the new-born baby his girl friend just had, takes place as usual in the bleak environment of a Belgian industrial city, like the Dardenne’s first 3 films. At first sight there is nothing very sexy or appealing in this pathetic story. But the way the Dardenne follow their characters with a lot of sympathetic close scrutiny force you to practically enter into their minds and become part of their small personal dramas and idiosyncrasies. The intensity of the action, without the help of any artificial effect or music, increases all the way to the end. The cinematography is a model of efficiency: not a single shot or frame that is not absolutely necessary. This film is what I would call a perfect example of an anti-aesthetic cinema. THE QUEEN Stephen Frears, England I regard Stephen Frears, along with Ken Loach, as one of the most reliable and creative contemporary English directors. What is fascinating is his capacity to adapt his solid film-making techniques to the type of story he is filming while keeping a very personal style. He spent most of his career working as a TV director, and it probably gave him this very good capacity to adapt to all kind of genres. Even though they have completely different subjects, time periods, and types of characters, films like “Dangerous Liaisons”, “My beautiful launderette”,“Samy and Rosie get laid”, or “Prick-up your ears” all share the same elegance and stylistic fluidity in story-telling. I was very reluctant to go see “The Queen” since I am not too fond of stories about the British royals. But I was completely taken by the precision of the script-writing and its quite bold comments on the relationships between the royal family, the British citizenry, and the press, during the Diana story, and I enjoyed Frear’s masterful control of his story-telling process from the beginning to the end of the movie. The cinematography is very seductive. And of course the actors performances, Helen Mirren’s interpretation of Elizabeth II is almost painful, are very convincing, as it is often the case in British films. LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, USA At long last a non-vulgar, and very joyful comedy. This is the story of a very loony family including a depressed and suicidal uncle, a marvelous super-angry, sex-obsessed, but affectionate grandpa (Alan Arkin), a rebellious and nihilist adolescent, an often stupid and inconsiderate father who is selling methods to achieve success, and a mother on the verge of a nervous breakdown (Toni Colette) riding an out of shape Volkswagen bus to California. They are trying to arrive on time to allow the young daughter to compete in a beauty contest. Of course the trip will be full of unexpected events, including the death of the grand-father whose corpse, compacted in the trunk, will have to travel with them all the way to the end in order to be buried. The whole thing is at the same time very refreshing and thought provoking. The directing is very efficient and serves a very astute screenplay and sharp dialogs. 2: Films I rented and saw on my DVD player: 1. HENRI LANGLOIS, The PHANTOM OF THE CINEMATHEQUE Jacques Richard, France, 2003 This long but fascinating saga of the life-long passionate and constant efforts of a Frenchman, Henri Langlois, to save thousands of films from destruction or oblivion and to constitute one of the richest library of films of all origins is a must-see film for anybody who really loves movies and the history of cinema. Hundreds of film clips and interviews of actors, directors, producers, film technicians, writers, journalists, who witnessed the colossal efforts of the man who put the Cinémathèque Française on the world map of cinema. The portrait of the man as a very controversial but also very humane and generous is in itself a fascinating study. A very grand and touching documentary. 2. LA BETE HUMAINE Jean Renoir, France, 1938 Based on one of Emile Zola’s books, this is one of the better films of the old master that was made between “La Grande Illusion” (“Grand Illusion”) in 1937 and his masterpiece “La règle du jeu” (“Rules of the game” that had just been re-released in the U.S in a brand new print) in 1939. I never had a chance to see it before and I have to admit that it is still very powerful, even if some sequences are a bit too melodramatic for a 2006 viewer. Jean Gabin, one of the most celebrated actors during his long career of over 35 years, plays a locomotive engineer who is an epileptic and is involved in a dangerous love affair with the beautiful wife of the station master played by Simone Simon. There is also a sordid situation of moral blackmail over the murder of one of her lovers. Spectacular black and white cinematography. 3. TIRESIA Bertrand Bonello, France, 2005 Bertrand Bonello is, for me, one of the most creative and original French contemporary directors. I had been totally won over his 2001 “ The Pornographer” with François Truffaut’s favorite actor: Jean-Pierre Léaud. In that film, Bonello had a totally innovative, but a bit austere, stylistic approach to composing frames and directing actors. “Tiresia” goes farther and is sometimes almost revolutionary in its narrative and shooting processes. This very haunting but different film, based on an ancient Greek mythology legend, will probably disconcert many viewers, and its subject will perhaps shock a few. Tiresia is a beautiful Brazilian transsexual prostitute who works at night in the Bois de Boulogne in Paris. She is kidnapped and sequestrated in his house by a poet (Laurent Lucas from “ With a friend like Harry”) who sort of wants to dedicate his life to her beauty. But, deprived of her hormone treatment, Tiresia slowly loses her feminine attributes, and the frustrated poet blinds her/him and abandons her/him in a forest after almost killing her/him. The second part of the film narrates how Tiresia is found and brought back to his health as a beautiful young man by a young and very naive woman in a small country house. Like in the Greek legend Tiresia proves to be an oracle and is able to predict the inhabitants of the village’s future. This annoys the priest of the parish (Laurent Lucas again) who has difficult arguments with Tiresia. All this can sound weird, but in fact this is a very articulate and beautiful film, whose style sometimes reminded me of Robert Bresson’s filmic style. 4. GOOD MORNING NIGHT Marco Bellocchio, Italy, 2003 I always thought that Marco Bellochio was one the most innovative directors of the Italian New Wave of the sixties when he directed “Fists in his Pockets” (1965), “ China is near” (67), and later in 1971 “ In the name of the father”. He then, like Jean-Luc Godard, had a period of extreme-left political activism that had a very diminishing impact on his career as an international director. But later on he came back to more traditional production methods and “The leap into void” won best actor and best actress awards for two French actors ( Michel Piccoli and Anouk Aimée) at the Cannes film festival in 1980. He also had a certain success, based on scandal caused by a “real” sex scene in 1986 with “‘The Devil in the flesh”. But afterwards he was plagued by a long purgatory period marked by more misses than hits. It lasted until 2002 when he directed the beautiful and very moving “ The religion hour” ("My mother’s smile") where the great Italian actor Sergio Castellito offered the best performance of his career. And he is back to the top of his directing shape with this very dark and intimist story describing the difficult relationships between Italian prime minister Aldo Moro and his Red Brigade captors after they kidnapped and later killed him in 1978. It is a very tense, but a bit claustrophobic, piece of cinema, beautifully shot in both black and white and colors, that benefits from a very controlled actors direction and a sharp editing. 5. THE INTRUDER Claire Denis, France, 2005 Claire Denis has been one of the most creative and “free-thinking” female directors working in France since the late eighties. Several of her best films had limited distribution in the U.S. but are available in DVD: “Chocolat” (88), “No fear No die” (90), “ I can’t sleep” (94), “Nénette and Boni” (96), “Touble every day” (01), “Friday Night” (2002). But if you should rent only one of her films, it has to be “ Beau Travail” (1999), which for me is one of the most visually stunning European film of the last 10 years. Its narrative style is perhaps the most inventive and visually absorbing since Alain Resnais’s “Hiroshima my love” in 1959. In “The Intruder” she directs the same strong actor, Michel Subor, that she already used in “ Beau travail”. Jean-Luc Godard had put him for the first time in the sunlight in his 1960 second feature film, “Le petit soldat”, that was for a long time censured by the French government for his treatment of the topic of torture during the Algerian war. Michel Subor plays the role of a dying man who gets an illegal heart transplant and goes to the French South Pacific islands to find his long estranged son. Very strong stuff... beautifully shot in glorious colors and cinemascope by another great French woman- artist of the cinema: Director of photography Agnes Godard. 6. MONDAY MORNING Otar Ioselliani, France, 2002 I am always saddened by the unjust oblivion by American film distributors, and by many critics of the very original work of this Georgian director, who got so disgusted by the way he was treated by the Soviet authorities in his homeland in spite of many awards in international film fests, that he emigrated to France in the early eighties where he has been directing little gems since then. He is now a French citizen. Iossellani is a very facetious but human-loving maverick director. He claims to be influenced by the French master Jacques Tati. But in fact he has his very own originality. He creates semi-loony situations where ordinary people living either in small French towns or villages find themselves alienated in completely bizarre and sometimes dream-like intrigues or fantasies. But Ioselliani has such of love for his out of the ordinary characters and the actors who make them sound totally real, that we end-up entering his strange universe without any second thought. In "Monday morning", a French blue-collar worker in a polluting plant near Paris has sort of a melt-down and leave family and friends to embark in a strange very personal adventure in Venice, full of discoveries and new realities about himself. If you cannot find this very well-shot film, try and rent one of his earlier film: “Chasing butterflies”, its a pure little masterpiece. 7. CLEAN Olivier Assayas, France, 2004 I am a fan of Olivier Assayas, one of the most influent directors of the new New French Wave, that developed in the late eighties, early nineties. Some of his best early films, “Paris s’éveille” (Paris awakens), 1991, and “L’eau froide”(Cold water"), 1994, as well as “Late August, early September”, 1998, had very limited distribution in the U.S. But his sumptuous and very moving adaptation of a great novel by Jacques Chardonne, Les Destinées Sentimentales, was released with some success and is rented as a DVD as “ Les Destinees”. His biggest commercial in the U.S. was “Irma Vep”,1996, whose leading lady was Maggie Cheung, the famous Hong Kong actress, who became Assayas wife for a couple of years. By the way, Assayas directed a beautiful portrait of one of my favorite directors, Hou Hsiao Hsien, for a French TV channel in 1997. “Clean” tells the depressing story of the widow of a former rock star (Maggie Cheung again who won the best actress award for this performance at Cannes) who, while she spends some times in prison for drug use, has left her son with her father-in-law, a great role for Nick Nolte. She then tries, with lots of difficulties and challenges facing her, a new “clean” life in Paris. Eric Gauthier, who also won an award for this film in Cannes as best Director of photography) has created a very moody visual universe for this fascinating film. 8. INFERNAL AFFAIRS Andrew Lau, Hong Kong, 2002 After seeing Scorsese’s “ The Departed”, I had an urge to see the original Hong Kong model for his film. I was not disappointed. Internal affairs, in some ways, is almost more touching and involving that its American remake. The two actors playing the “moles”, the great Tony Leung (from “In he mood for love”) and Andy Lau, are as efficient as their counterparts in Scorsese’s film. And the role of the mob boss, played very intensely by Eric Tsang, is in some way more intriguing that Jack Nicholson’s. The cinematography is really spectacular; No wonder, the great Australian director of photography Christopher Doyle (Chungking express, Rabbit-proof fence, The quiet American etc.) was partially responsible for it. 9. MILLENNIUM MAMBO Hou Hsiao Hsien, Taiwan, 2005 I know, the same director is already part of my 10 best films seen in theaters. But I was really captivated by the rhythm and the tone of this otherwise rather not too interesting story of this B’girl and her lovers and gangster friends. It is purely because of its visual and stylistic qualities, which are nevertheless impressive, that this movie figures in this list. 10. DON’T COME KNOCKING Wim Wenders, U.S.A 2005 Why did I like so much this half failure of a movie that was panned by the majority of American critics? It is certainly not the best film by one of my favorite German directors, but it sure is one of his most personal. Sam Shepard, who also wrote the script and seems to enjoy this hyper-narcissist trip, plays the role of a very tired former star of western movies, who after he failed miserably in all his endeavors, including marital, is now in search of his unknown child in Butte, Montana. I really enjoyed the variety of the characters. I was especially overjoyed to see the marvelous Eva-Marie Saint again in a very touching appearance as Sam Shepard’s old mom. I loved the surreal quality of the cinematography by the very good German director of Photography Franz Lustig who was able to create a very eerie feeling around these landscapes of the West. And I enjoyed the courageous stand by Wenders to shoot a film as completely alienated from what the American public expects or wants nowadays.

1 comment:

  1. I agree with you about The Illusionist, which I loved. And Volver. And The Departed. And "Three Burials." And speaking of Westerns, you might enjoy 3:10 to Yuma. I just had it from Netflix and thoroughly enjoyed it (I hadn't really expected to like it as much as I did).