10. 13 Tzameti, Géla Babluani
The realism and power of 13 Tzameti comes less from execution than it does from conceit: after a dreamy opening act shot in the shadows of what will be the film’s fatalism, an anonymous young man ends up in a deadly game of roundtable roulette in which the contestants stand in a circle and point loaded guns at the back of one another’s heads while gamblers place high stakes on their player’s arbitrary survival. The sweat looks real, and the cartoon grimaces formed between the jowls of the bloodthirsty gamblers gather a terrifying immediacy. Somehow, it doesn’t seem so far-fetched that in the crannies of our society of competition and greed, something so dastardly might go down.
9. Wassup Rockers, Larry Clark
There’s some daring patience-testing squirming around in Wassup Rockers. The Michael Snow moment happens as the gang picks a set of concrete steps to skate and a belligerent camera stays still for one dull bust after another. You might start thinking the repetition of failure after failure is set-up for a slick, cathartic landing, a mini-climax that rewards you for suffering the sloppy skating. But that’s just predilection for pay-off, and Rockers affords you no such bourgeois indulgences.
A sequence in which one of the Rockers, Kiko, is given a bubble bath by a bourboned-up walking boob job celebrates Kiko’s amorous designs and spits Buñuelian bile at the privileged class. In fact, the scene manages to outdo Luis when a cackling Clark electrocutes the rich bitch in a bathtub. No discreet charm about this bourgeoisie; I don’t think Buñuel would have ever willfully executed Delphine Seyrig.
8. Volver, Pedro Almodóvar
Almodóvar finally catches up with his reputation in this freewheeling character study. He and Penélope Cruz slowly reveal a complicated and troubled woman in Raimunda, but only after winning the audience’s amorous devotion to her. It is a great experience to love a real person, we learn from Volver, not the idealized image we invent on first blush. Not only are Raimunda’s troubling complexities unveiled, but by the end, Cruz has stepped entirely out of the simplistic pretty girl performances she’s put forth in the past.
7. Manderlay, Lars von Trier
After taking on democracy in Dogville, Papa Lars sets his crosshairs on emancipation. He effectively – and to great effect – accuses white America of inventing an idea of freedom that it finds palatable for blacks in hopes that they free themselves into our hands so that we may convince them the shackles we’ve given them are now their own. This is von Trier at his ugliest, and therefore his best. This criminally underseen film opened the year that would belong to Borat, but beat it to many of its assertions. (That is, as I understand it… I haven’t seen Borat.)
6. Mutual Appreciation, Andrew Bujalski
A film that is lovely for its intimacy, that has a honed eye on little bits of human behavior. It faced some undeserved backlash for being small in scope, but the way Bujalski embraces such small scale rather than chase big budget success (as he surely could have done after his award-winning debut) is what makes him and his film so admirable.
5. The Departed, Martin Scorsese
Swings from thugs to snitches, crime syndicates to elaborate bureaucratic busts, from Rolling Stones bodega beatdowns to a diabolical deluge of do-ins in which demises are doled out on the down beat. The staged executions of this work of pure fiction are tougher to stomach than the troublingly omni-viewed offing of Saddam. Last year, the throat-slit in Caché elicited a gasp from every audience that sat for it, and this year nauseous groans emit from every Departed audience. But this time it’s men in the audience who can’t take it, maybe because Marty’s flipped the cinema of joyous violence he helped invent for them on its back, laying it out like so many extras and superstars littering the elevator landing with equalizing inertia.
Watching Leo and Damon meta-fictionally square off for the top spot brought the greatest Hollywood moment of the year, and the peak political moment of pop culture blew through when Baldwin bellowed “Patriot Act! Patriot Act!” illustrating the termitic results of carte blanche bugging that doesn’t have a tick turd’s worth to do with terrorism.
4. Colossal Youth, Pedro Costas
This contemplative story centers on Ventura, a lean, dark tower of a man who plays spiritual father to the emotional orphans of a housing development in the throes of renovation. His visits with the tenants are defined primarily by their studious tenderness – long, static shots, the compositions and lighting varying – but tinged with bitter reality as a woman who calls him father charges him for the beers he downs at her pad. With a narrative that leaps around in time, seems to repeat itself, and might contain a ghost, Costa’s film gathers its unquestionable continuity of character and clarity of heart from its soulfulness and poignancy: as a favor to one of his quasi-adoptees, Ventura composes a love poem off the cuff for the man to send to his estranged wife: “I wish I could give you a hundred thousand cigarettes, a dozen of those fancy dresses, a car, the little lava house you’ve always wanted, a four-penny bouquet.” This is a heartbreaking masterpiece.
3. L’Enfant, Dardenne Brothers
Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men is on plenty of Top 10 lists this year, a movie with stunning action sequences about the tumultuous turn of events triggered by the birth of a single baby. Cuarón’s film is a pristine picture of virtuosity, shooting scenes of elaborate geography in single takes. In one instance of formidable filmmaking, he splashes blood on the lens early on in the take so that later, when we’ve covered much ground and run down the shot clock, the red droplets remind us we’re watching the same shot we were before we came in this room, went down that hallway, came up those steps, got off that bus, came from behind that embankment. Whew.
But the real masterwork with stunning action sequences about the tumultuous turn of events triggered by the birth of a single baby is the Dardenne Brothers’ new film. Cuarón manages to rub some realism on the future with his stylistic decisions, but they still register – blood droplets and all – like stylistic decisions. In L’Enfant, the traveling camera and the terror it captures and communicates is an extension of the realism inherent in the soul of the thing.
2. Death of Mr. Lazarescu, Cristi Puiu
This summer, at a Walter Reade screening of Rules of the Game, after I’d uncorked a bottle of Shiraz and filled a plastic deli cup for my gal and I, a balding man with wire-framed glasses shuffled in front of us and plunked down in the adjacent seat. I saw him sizing us up and to my chagrin he ventured an opener:
“Is this your first Renoir picture?”
We snapped back a curt monosyllable in the negative, hoping to cut him off, but he was perversely encouraged by our testiness, and he proceeded to somehow trick me into engaging with him in a dialogue about how young people don’t go to the movies, they watch films as downloads on iPods, they don’t know anything about vinyl, these kids and their digital culture. That he couldn’t tell us he actually knew the habits of any specific person under thirty didn’t deter his diatribe. Before we ditched him with a seat switch, we made a last ditch effort with him: “You know, things change, pal.”
Then – and I almost spit my Shiraz at this development – it turned out this mole had a date! She came down the aisle, spied him in the second row, and made a face – her saved seat was too close for her taste. “You gotta sit up close and let the images wash over you,” he proclaimed to her and every ticket holder on the ground floor. Unconvinced, she tried to persuade him to move. He stood fast. They did not sit together. I’m pretty sure he slept alone.
The queasiness over technological advances (also evidenced recently in The New York Times and The New Yorker) is a small price to pay for our youth having access to knowledge of directors and films (and musicians and artists) they never would have heard of if they were thumbing through the annual Videohound tome the way I was when I was their age. The kids are alright; they’ve got resources these days.
Up with the Internet Movie Database and file-sharing! Renaissance by iPod, anyone?
Of course, there is a hierarchy of viewing, and the Luddite at Rules of the Game was right. “You gotta sit up close.” But, as my companion wondered, “Did he have to say it like that?”
In a Cinemascope interview earlier this year, the director of the Romanian real-timer Lazarescu Cristi Puiu proudly proclaimed himself a member of the DVD generation, having practically forsaken theater-going due to the popcorn and soda culture prevalent at movie venues in his home of Romania (and it’s not much different here – lots of trimmings that make the movies seem modest). Once I may have cringed at finding out that the director of this masterwork favors home viewing over the temple of the movie theater. But then I think of that asshole at Rules of the Game. Things change, pal, and any evolution that brings us Death of Mr. Lazarescu is a sweet one.
1. Miami Vice – Theatrical Version, Michael Mann
A gorgeous monster of the momentary mode of the medium – shot on DV and film, seamlessly interweaving them beneath windswept chaos. A wispy ballet of ballistics and bullets, Mann’s masterpiece is an elastic exercise in treatment of time and place, somehow simultaneously rushing ahead of itself with its self-propelling pace and establishing rapturous intimacy with the places and events that its inhabitants (ciphers or mystics?) speed through with deterministic fatalism. Flopped at the box office and affectionately hair-tussled by critics, probably because nobody knew what the hell they were looking at: a new kind of movie seemingly shot by an alien for the curious eye it casts towards human modes of travel, communication, relationship, and eradication.