Happy New Year everyone! Before we go into the deep dark night of this new year, I thought I would rattle off some of what I considered the better films that I saw this past year. Among other things, I suppose the new semester's worth of students who find this blog will have something to judge me by. Of course, this disclaimer is necessary: I haven't seen all those many flicks again this year because, well, I'm busy and I have a kid. (My good friend JJ needs more time to play catch-up; I realize I will never catch up and thus offer this small list.) More than anything, this list reflects a personal view of this year's films, and perhaps will encourage a scant few of you to take another look (or, in one case, a first look, if it ever gets out). It also serves as a precursor to the Supporting Actress Blogathon coming up in next week, for which I have agreed to write an entry. (Stay tuned: my choice is not referencedhere.)
Without further ado:
5. Inside Man, directed by Spike Lee -- I saw a number of good movies in preparation for choosing my final project for my intro film classes this year and this was one of my finalists for last spring. My students will note that I ended up choosing a meatier film for class that semester, Thank You for Smoking (which I also loved); the truth, however, was that I really enjoyed this one immensely, despite the fact that it was "just a genre film." Sure, it's just a heist flick -- but done so well. I generally enjoy thrill rides like this and honestly love it when I just can't figure it out until the end (hence, why you won't see The Prestige up here, which I guessed early on.) . I actually like to see Spike Lee do a "big movie" like this, and yet still punctuate it well to make it his own. The end result was a tremendously fun, smart flick all around. Kudos to Lee also for using the song "Chaiyya Chaiyya" from the Bollywood film Dil se for the opening credits, which sent us looking for that film, which we also enjoyed. (A runner-up, for the same merits, would have to be Casino Royale, which was another popular 2-1/2 hour flick which surprised me when the credits came up.)
4. The Fountain, directed by Darren Aronofsky -- The original tag line for Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey was 'The ultimate trip," undoubtedly aware of the many implications of that statement; in much the same way, I find The Fountain a rightful heir as a gorgeous flick that forces the viewer to use her brain. A lot of people hated this movie, perhaps because they expected so much from it after Pi and Requiem for a Dream, not envisioning a highly stylish personal picture. The movie intertwines three stories -- past, present, future -- played by the same actors with similar character names, all hunting for the secret to eternal life. The end result is perplexing and mystifying on many levels -- and yet I literally had my breath taken away with this one. I can't tell you with confidence that I "got" the picture, but I felt I had gone through a truly thought-provoking experience. I wonder how this will translate to the small screen, as I found the picture's attempts at grandeur mesmerizing on the large one. (Two other messy films that had me going precisely because of the messiness, done by directors with clout: Marc Foster's Stranger than Fiction and Alejandro González Iñárritu's Babel.)
3. Shortbus, directed by John Cameron Mitchell -- I had been curious about this ever since 2003, when I got to interview Mitchell in Lima and he told me about the beginnings of this follow-up to Hedwig and the Angry Inch; in this one, he said, people would be having real sex, but it would be metaphorical, not pornographic. Reading and listening to folks talk about the film after its release, people got so hung up on the sex and its reality, that I felt that they missed the point of what is really a whisp of a movie, a fantasy involving a melange of New Yorkers who can't seem to remember E.M. Forster's famous epigram to Howards End: only connect. Much like laughter punctuates the horrific in such disparate elements as MacBeth, the early Rossellini film Rome, Open City and the most basic of horror flicks, the rather graphic nature of the sex shown here only punctuates the fantasy. For me, the various scenes of New York made out of paper-maiché were far more indicative of what the movie was all about -- and why, when the entire cast started a sing-a-long toward the end of the movie, it didn't seem out of place.
2. Little Children, directed by Todd Field -- Up until I started actually writing these out, I was planning to put this at the top of my list. For starters, the movie has to be the best trailer made this year. The film itself is a careful study of repressed, fragile denizens of suburbia, connected largely through their conceptions of parenthood. (Hmm, perhaps this is why I liked this film so much.) I found this movie completely unpredictable, tense and unnerving in many ways. (That Isay this about a film that prominently features a voice-over narrator, which I usually loathe, says something.) The cast is exceptional, particularly Kate Winslet, Patrick Wilson, Jackie Earle Hailey and Phyllis Somerville and Field's taut direction is evident throughout.
1. Day Night Day Night, directed by Julia Loktev -- I have decided to leave the top spot for a film I saw at Telluride that has not gotten a release, nor might it ever. It's one of those films that makes you bang your head against something hard when you think of how many National Lampoon flicks get released while no one will give this one a chance. The plot, what little there is, is simple: a girl spends the last 48 hours of her life preparing to be a suicide bomber. The film is far more complex than that one sentence. For one, the little we know about her works wonders -- and this changes as the film continues. Loktev (who won the Director's Fortnight prize at Cannes for this) keeps the camera so uncomfortably close to the protagonist that we as viewers start to sense everything about her -- and Williams, who is a major find, brings out a tight, subtle performance that pierces. The questions brought up with this piece demonstrate just how film in its very stylishness can also say something important.