Saturday, August 8, 2009

Film Feature: Best Films of the Year (So Far)

Film / Feature

The Best Films of the Year (So Far) [InRO]

More than anything it’s just a pain to write these intros. And while this time last year I had the relatively mediocre quality of films released to rail about (seriously, “Kung Fu Panda” made my list), 2009 has been a solid if not overly impressive year thus far. That’s boring. So instead I’ll just observe that this year, for me, has been all about auteur filmmakers; be they established directors like Olivier Assayas or the welcome return-to-relevance of Francis Ford Coppola, or be they promising new talents Armando Iannucci, with his uproarious governmental institutions satire “In the Loop,” muscular and formally accomplished dramas by Austrian Gotz Spielmenn (“Revanche”) and German Christian Petzold (“Jerichow”), and the equally haunting debuts of Chilean director Pablo Larrain (“Tony Manero”) and Korean-American Lee Isaac Chung (“Munyurangabo”). It’s a melting pot of international talents on this list. Add to the group Mainland Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhang-ke’s stunning docu-fiction hybrid “24 City,” the aforementioned British satire “In the Loop,” Kathryn Bigelow’s brutal Iraq War pic “The Hurt Locker,” and- why not “Up,” too? The latest Pixar, a reliably excellent film from a studio that just doesn’t miss any more. Any one of those could fight their way on to this list by the end of the year. Also of note are the ones I still need to see (“Moon,” “The Beaches of Agnes,” “Tulpan,” “The Girlfriend Experience” – the latter I have really no excuse for since it was on On Demand for ages and I slept on it) and the ones I’ve seen but it’s been too long since I have to judge them with any certainty (“Lorna’s Silence”). And let’s hear it for the only doc that matters in ’09: Louie Psihoyos’ genre mash-up “The Cove,” which seemingly aims for the greatness of last year’s similar “Man on Wire,” falling a little short but creating no less enthralling and informative cinema. That’s all I got. That and see Erick Zonca’s “Julia,” despite its absence from this list and my accompanying pseudo honorable mentions rattled off above, if only for Tilda Swinton who gives the performance to beat this year.

Top 10 (Alphabetical):

Ramin Bahrani's first two films, 2006's "Man Push Cart" and 2008's "Chop Shop," wear the Iranian-American director's neorealist influences proudly, and their release marked the arrival of a significant talent. However, those films' tendency to shy away from any real form of tension or narrative momentum can seem forced, and the filmmaking skill on display isn't quite enough to elevate either above the designation of a modest achievement. Thankfully, "Goodbye Solo" steps up his craft, his storytelling ability and his characterizations, without compromising his dedication to realistic cinema, so rare to American independent filmmaking. Its basic plot is lifted from native Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami's "Taste of Cherry," but 'Solo' is considerably more engaging, favoring depiction of a strong and inspiring human connection between two unlikely friends, as opposed to the lonely wanderer at the heart of Kiarostami's film. Both are essentially about a man who seeks to end his life, but where Kiarostami found the grim subject matter to be a jumping off point for stoic meditation, Bahrani sees it as a catalyst for hope and renewal. It's that quality which makes 'Solo' both Bahrani's most compelling work, and his most optimistic. Bahrani may have always wanted to make films with a commitment to capturing real life, but "Goodbye Solo" feels like the first film of the director's career that, by its minimalist aesthetic, is emboldened rather than stifled.

The beach serves as a powerful setting in German filmmaker Christian Petzold's sophomore feature "Jerichow," a modern reimagining of "The Postman Always Rings Twice." In scenes rife with physical intensity, Petzold's characters glide across the screen with a dynamism similar to the greek sculptures rotating against blue skies in Jean-Luc Godard's classic "Contempt." Benno Fürmann as Thomas in particular is a striking Adonis of a man, hulking and authoritative, completely opaque and an emotional blank slate. He was dishonorably discharged by the military and soon finds a job working for Turkish immigrant Ali (Hilmi Sözer), and later having an affair with his wife Laura, played by the great young actress Nina Hoss – quickly gaining cache as one of world cinema's most skilled actresses. Both native Germans, Thomas and Laura find themselves shamed by their relationship to the wealthy outsider Ali, a kind of resent which spurns a cultural and class based conflict that informs many of the wordless stretches in "Jerichow." Dialogue may be minimal throughout and plot as simple as they come, but just the way Petzold positions his subjects within a frame says more about them and is more piercing than any other gestures could be.

Lots of fuss has been made (deservedly) over Kathryn Bigelow's "The Hurt Locker," the first successful film to take on the complex conflict that is the Iraq War and produce a work that captures our troops' experience without over dramatization. Meanwhile, quietly, Korean-American filmmaker Lee Isaac Chung debuted his first feature film, "Munyurangabo," slipped it into NYC theaters almost exclusively and wowed the few who saw it. The comparison is only apt in that Chung's film takes on another major conflict: the Rwandan genocide. And depending on your opinion of Terry George's "Hotel Rwanda," "Munyurangabo" may be the first narrative film to capture the lingering spirit of the conflict in a realistic and honest way. It's about young Tutsi boy Ngabo, an orphan of the genocide, who vows to avenge his parents with the help of Hutu friend Sangwa. The duo are immediately sidetracked by Sangwa's decision to stop and visit his family, who he hasn't seen since running away as a child. It's here where the film unexpectedly stalls, and an examination of the lasting prejudices between Hutus and Tutsis becomes central, as does the complex dynamic between the members of an impoverished Rwandan family – specifically the difficult relationship between a traditional father and his forward-thinking son. Stylistically, the film is even more impressive: the political implication of many scenes recalls the cinema of Africa's premiere filmmaker, Ousmane Sembene, but Chung's deft compositional sense, deliberate pace and sympathetic rendering of youthful characters stifled by a harsh culture and familial expectation is reminiscent of Iranian Abbas Kiarostami's films (specifically "Where is the Friend's House"). However, the real masterstroke here is a long-form, single-take poem – a moment in the film where fiction and non-fiction blur. And as much as Chung culls from many influences, this sequence is very much his own.

Though I perhaps sung its praises a bit too highly in my initial review, Jody Hill's achingly funny and fiercely provocative "Observe and Report" is still one of the most underrated films of this year; a stylishly executed and boldly controversial character study that snuck into mainstream theaters and among much less ambitious fare, never finding an audience and, sadly, making way, way less dough than that other mall cop movie. Too bad, theatergoers, because that's your loss: Hill's film manages that rare feat of being as funny as just about anything, without compromising its depth and integrity. And "integrity" may seem an odd descriptor to apply to a film that features date-rape and the copious beatings of tweenagers, but that's exactly what Hill is going for: provocation, showing us a recognizably volatile man who's a product of middle-class America and popular culture's influence (hence the Tarantino-esque slo-mo montages and classic rock music, often mistakenly taken for mere stylistic affect). But Hill doesn't condemn his sociopath and in fact, more controversial still, shows him sympathy, without ever suggesting his brutal actions should be met with exoneration. It's a deft balance of dark humor and emotional gravity, and Hill nails it. To paraphrase a lyric from The Band's cover of a Bob Dylan classic that opens "Observe and Report," Hill, unlike many other comedic filmmakers, seems like he's genuinely trying to "paint his masterpiece."

Austrian Gotz Spielmann's "Revanche" is a slow burning revenge saga that avoids the rhythms of, say, a Coen Brothers thriller and favors a more meditative pace (especially in its last act), patiently observing its protagonist in the throes of moral crisis. It's an elemental film inspired by that most elemental of all filmmakers: Russian master Andrei Tarkovsky. And just as Tarkovsky suggested metaphorical implication in his "Solaris" through contrasting landscapes – the warm embrace of natural surroundings giving way to the isolation of space – Spielmann too uses his central character's retreat from the confining sprawl of Vienna to calming woods in the countryside as symbolic of spiritual rejuvenation. But not everything in "Revanche" is so heady: it's also a film of nerve-racking suspense, and one that uses a voyeuristic device similar to that in Florian Henckel von Donnersmark's "The Lives of Others" to both give insight into these characters and to build an overwhelming tension that earns a satisfying climax. "Revanche" can be a little too staid and its dependance on an intersecting plot device feels forced, but the striking composition of nearly every frame, communicating a palpable loneliness and isolation through wide-angle shots during which the camera doesn't move, assures that this is one of the most accomplished films of the year from a very promising (and relatively new) international talent.

"Summer Hours" is the second of four planned films produced by and featuring artifacts from the Musee d’Orsay (Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s “Flight Of The Red Balloon” is the first, and in my view one of the defining films of the last decade). Its director, Olivier Assayas, is a guy I’ve developed a bit of a thing for (his “Boarding Gate” remains, controversially, one of my favorite films of last year, and his Fassbinder-esque "Irma Vep" is even more stunning and hypnotic). And the film stars three masterful French actors: Juliette Binoche, Jeremie Renier and Charles Berling – all of whom have worked with world cinema's leading auteurs, from Hou to Kieslowski to the Dardennes and Patrice Chereau. So the film feels like something of a culmination; a meeting of artistic minds that registers as an event movie for arthouse patrons as much as the iMAX sect got their rocks off with the 'Transformers' sequel last month. And, luckily, it doesn't disappoint; if it's not the masterpiece I designated "Flight of the Red Balloon" to be this time last year, it's still the closest thing I've seen to great in '09 thus far, and a fair bit more mature, thoughtful and especially graceful than the rest.

It's also the premiere highlight of a burgeoning sub-genre on the international circuit: a crop of films that deal with generational transference, a term I apply to the many mirthful works concerning familial discourse and the tension between old and new generations, often stirred by financial insecurity. This includes Kiyoshi Kurosawa's nuclear family drama "Tokyo Sonata," as well as Claire Denis’ “35 Shots of Rum” and Hirokazu Kore-eda’s “Still Walking” (both homages to another purveyor of the family dynamic, Yasujiro Ozu). "Summer Hours" is the most affecting; it at first appears an elegiac film, beginning with the death of Helene, the family matriarch (the regal Edith Scob, who makes a major impression during her limited screen time), and involving deliberations between siblings (Binoche, Renier and Berling) over the outcome of the family estate. But “Summer Hours” overflows with warmth and compassion, and Assayas displays his accumulated wisdom as a filmmaker in the way he develops the relationships between his three siblings, carefully balancing their disagreements and sympathies. Still, the transcendence of "Summer Hours" arrives in its final moments: a vibrant house party filled with young people, during which Helene’s granddaughter arrives at a sudden and meaningful reflection. Assayas suggests that as our possessions and property inevitably change hands, a new season of life brings with it the cleansing prospect of a new generation.

It’s hard to call “Tetro” a return-to-form for Francis Ford Coppola since the form this movie takes is so vastly different from the director’s most recognized works. Often pigeonholed as, that guy who did the ‘Godfather’ movies and “Apocalypse Now,” Coppola’s talents in fact extend far beyond those exercised in his two or three monster classics. “Tetro,” if you’re looking for context, is more like the filmmaker’s greatly underrated “Rumble Fish” than anything else; both utilize lush, black and white photography that intentionally recalls a certain era of cinema, and both choose to flirt with color the same way their old fashion narratives flirt with their present day setting. It’s incredibly intimidating just to describe “Tetro” since there are so many things going on in the picture and references that fly way over my head (several scenes play snippets from Emeric Pressburger and Michael Powell’s 1951 “The Tales of Hoffman” and 1948 “The Red Shoes,” then reinterpret their absurdist-operatic tone within the film later on). It’s a messy work made by a mad filmmaker with an apparent refusal to compromise on anything – making his pairing with nasally skeleton Vincent Gallo that much more appropriate, considering that actor’s generally critic-repellent choice of projects. But it’s also a genius film, clearly labored over intensely and composed obsessively – though not in a way that makes “Tetro” feel stuffy, as it it is in fact quite humorous and its willingness to not take itself too seriously is one of its greatest strengths. Its story, about a younger brother’s search for answers and for the older brother who abandoned him (Gallo), is apparently based in some sort of abstract way on Coppola’s own life (the tyrannical father in the film is, after all, like Coppola’s own father, a famous composer). Considering this, it makes sense that “Tetro” feels like the most personal and passionate thing the director’s helmed in decades, a far cry from 2007’s wildly uneven and way too heady “Youth Without Youth” – though, thankfully, no less bonkers and thrillingly ambitious.

"When's the earthquake coming," one character wonders aloud in Kiyoshi Kurosawa's "Tokyo Sonata." He's of the younger generation, wandering the streets aimlessly, coming home early in the morning with the feeling that he has no purpose in life. His comment foreshadows the arrival of a "Shortcuts"-esque tremor in the last act of "Tokyo Sonata" with a kind of knowing acknowledgment of the mess he's in – something's gotta give. And so it eventually does, but before that happens Japanese master Kiyoshi Kurosawa (no relation to that other Japanese master, though he's steadily carving out a legacy of equal importance) spends two nearly flawless hours building suspense through the mundane work-a-day activities of his suburban upper-middle class family. Suspense has always been prevalent in Kurosawa's filmography, but here he gravitates away from the horror genre and tries his hand at something more understated. If the resulting film is not his best (that would be 2005's languid epic "Pulse"), it's definitely up there; Kurosawa acutely observes Japanese social strata, and what first appears to be an on-the-nose study of economic downsizing as it effects the familial unit (a theme already explored comprehensively in Laurent Cantet's 2002 film "Time Out") soon reveals itself to be something much more penetrating, with a screenplay that rarely missteps. The scope of the film earns comparison to Edward Yang's early-decade masterpiece "Yi Yi: A One and a Two," and also to Ang Lee's own dysfunctional family drama "The Ice Storm." All three are intrinsically tied to a specific place and era, and yet take on a universal and timeless significance in their empathetic renderings of families striving to live through the maelstrom of hard times. But Kurosawa's real masterstroke reveals itself during "Tokyo Sonata's" gorgeous and cathartic final sequence: Though much of 'Sonata' is almost relentlessly bleak, at the conclusion of his film Kurosawa offers necessary pause, and suggests that there's salvation to be found in even the murkiest of times.

Dark, dark, dark. Boy is Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larrain's sadistic character study "Tony Manero," set in 1978 Santiago, an unrelenting and often unpleasant experience to sit through. It's something like the twisted, plays-with-matches older brother of another film on this list, Jody Hill's "Observe and Report." Both bear the unmistakable echoes of "Taxi Driver," examining the behaviors of mentally disturbed and violent individuals. But where Hill chose the template of a comedy to house his stinging social critique, Larrain's established tone is much more stark, blanketed in a heavy and oppressive gloom. Both characters are prone to erupt in Adam Sandler-worthy fits of rage, but there's a mechanical, passionless nature to the violence in "Tony Manero" that is particularly striking. Raul (Alfredo Castro, in one of the year's most disturbing and best performances) is a man of few words and intense physicality. He lives in a Totalitarian Chile at the mercy of Pinochet (there are radio snippets and TV clips throughout to remind of this), but he lives for John Badham's 1977 disco-era classic "Saturday Night Fever." Specifically, he's intent on embodying John Travolta's character in that film (the titular Tony Manero), auditioning for a local TV lookalike contest, buying a clean white suit and bartering for muddy glass tiles at a junkyard in order to build a light-up floor in the scuzzy bar he calls home. His exact reasons for obsessing about this particular film (and not, say, "Grease," which also plays at his local theater) aren't entirely clear. But what does seem significant is the escape a polished cinematic work like 'Fever' offers from Raul's putrid, impoverished Chilean existence. Likewise it's the frustrating reminders of Raul's real life that cause him to abruptly lash out with vicious and haunting precision. But Larrain gives us much more than shocking cinema for the sake of it; his film works best as a study of the effects a malfunctioning political and social environment has on a desperate man without options.

James Gray's films are continually dismissed by American critics as being without depth or too straight-forward, when in reality he's just a classical filmmaker, and his work is at worst strangely out of time in modern film culture. Well even Gray's detractors couldn't ignore the director's latest and best film "Two Lovers," which like most of Gray's work is an impeccable piece of filmmaking that values emotional truth and presents sensitively drawn characters – usually males struggling with braggadocio and the conflict between loyalty to family and personal freedom. That's certainly the case in "Two Lovers," which finds Joaquin Phoenix delivering his best performance since maybe Gus Van Sant's "To Die For" as introverted Leonard, a socially awkward suicidal who finds salvation in three woman: his manic neighbor played by Gwyneth Paltrow, Vinessa Shaw's girlfriend-material love interest and Leonard's mother, the regal Isabella Rosselini – all three delivering standout performances, Rosselini especially, better here than she's been in anything in a decade. But "Two Lovers" is Gray's film thoroughly, and it's so structurally sound and stylistically assured – he lends the film an appropriately woozy and dreamlike quality, complementing Leonard's dizzying circumstances – it makes "We Own the Night" (a better film than people give it credit for being) look shaggy and unfocussed by comparison. To this writer, "Two Lovers" is the best American film of 2009 thus far, and one that should end impulsive dismissals of this very skilled director’s work.

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