Best of 2004

Trilogy: The Weeping Meadow

I’ve been traveling a bit during the holidays, and combined with the devastating news of world disaster, it has been difficult to blog about movies the past couple of weeks. Now that the new year has begun, however, and Los Angeles seems especially prepped for good screenings the next few weeks (including the Palm Springs IFF and retrospectives of Graham Greene, Maurice Pialat, Guy Maddin, Von Stroheim, Von Sternberg/Dietrich), I will be posting regularly again.

First up is my top ten lists for 2004, and I should note that these are all films that either premiered in Los Angeles or that I saw at festivals last year. The listings are alphabetical; starrred titles are links to Filmjourney blog entries.

New Releases

1. Before Sunset

I reviewed Before Sunrise (1995) ten years ago for my university newspaper, and even then Linklater’s fluid merging of intelligent, free-flowing dialogue, romanticism, and responsibility touched me. This follow-up, co-scripted by lead actors Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, is no less impressive. It conveys the emotional weight and ethical nature of life decisions and gently and deftly invites the audience to share in its complexities.

2. Distant (Uzak) (2002)

Like Before Sunset, this is the story of two individuals trying to find their place in the world and the tense relationship between them, only this time it’s two cousins rather than former lovers, and Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s film is as cold and regional as Linklater’s film is sunny and international. Set in Istanbul in the dead of winter, the movie explores the struggling aspirations of two lonely souls with quiet aplomb, offering a mesmerizing array of urban, snow-encased settings.

3. CafÈ LumiËre *

Taiwanese Hou’s tribute to Ozu is more a question of theme than style; he echoes Ozu’s bittersweet depictions of the breakdown and evolution of the Japanese family through his own meditative, extended mastershots. Along the way, he provides a mirror reversal to his own project through his protagonist, a Japanese woman studying a Taiwanese artist. The film establishes its themes by calmly charting their reverberations through everyday life in Tokyo, much like the inquisitive young man who records the sounds of trains crisscrossing the city. Slightly sad, but also inspiring and acutely observational, the movie quietly resounds with considerable charm.

4. The Keys to the House

Gianni Amelio could be the most world-renowned filmmaker who continually remains absent from official canons. (In the latest issue of Film Comment, Olaf Mˆller dismissively compares Keys to Denis’ experimental L’Intrus, which he claims is “cinema at its most perfect, and most Italians, afflicted by the cine-nostalgia embodied by Gianni Amelio, hated it.”) But if “cine-nostalgia” means a film as emotionally reserved, character-driven, and wise toward human behavior as Amelio’s latest film is, I’ll continue to suffer from hindsight. The movie expresses the difficulty of relating to mentally- and physically-challenged loved ones, and exhibits a tremendous amount of hopeful compassion and clear-eyed sadness.

5. The Holy Girl (La NiÒa santa) *

Lucrecia Martel’s film is downright intoxicating in its tight compositions and heavy attention to its sound design, particularly the quiet, subjective nuances of a teenager’s perceptions, such as the ambient sounds of dripping water or uncertain breathing. Its subject is adolescent sexuality and faith and adult transgression, all of which is conceptually intensified by its immersive atmospheric effects.

6. Maria Full of Grace *

This remarkably solid double-debut (by writer-director Joshua Marston and actress Catalina Sandino Moreno) navigates a careful path avoiding melodrama or clichÈs about drug culture while focusing on the real-life emotional and political ambiguities faced by the Columbian people and ÈmigrÈs. Like the best of neorealist cinema, it formulates both a very effective narrative and an ethically complex look at current social trends. It’s also as accessible and intelligently nuanced as any American release this year, so it’s a real pity the Oscars have disqualified it from their Foreign Language category (over Columbia’s endorsement) because it was directed by a US citizen.

7. The Return (2003) *

One of the most visually powerful and allegorical films to come out of Russia since the Soviet era, Zvyaginstev’s film received tragic notoriety when, as with Distant above, one of the film’s principle young actors died shortly after filming. But the film thankfully stands on its own terms, telling its emotionally intense tale of the difficulties of reunion, redemption, and rebirth with profound control. Many Russian films of late seem to deal with father/son relationships, and this is one of the most successful at bridging precise dramaturgy with universal meaning.

8. Star Spangled to Death *

Renowned Beat experimentalist Ken Jacobs finally managed to complete his six-hour-plus magnum opus after decades of fiddling; the cut I screened featured extracts and commentary from a Kerry-Bush debate a couple weeks after it occurred. Like a mini film festival punctuated with stream of conscious text decrying the corruption of the capitalist system and George W. Bush in particular, the film provides a montage of media and personal commentary in provocative, surprising ways that never tires despite its monumental length.

9. The Story of Marie and Julien (Le Histoire de Marie et Julien) (2003)

Jacques Rivette’s latest film is a haunting metaphysical puzzler about a clockmaker, a mysterious woman he attempts to blackmail, and his enigmatic lover who may or may not exist in his imagination. Its layers of carefully-managed dreams and realities build into a suspenseful story working within its own dramatic rules. A teasing and provocative experience with a lot to say about time and the healing of wounds (or not) and the darker undercurrents of romantic love. (Look for the UK DVD in February.)

10. Trilogy: The Weeping Meadow *

My single favorite picture of the year, Angelopoulos’ emotionally overwhelming epic follows a Greek family as it interacts with the turbulent political climate of the early-to-mid century Mediterranean. Angelopoulos plots the drama through a series of visually astonishing set pieces: refugees huddle together in a honeycomb of tents within an ancient theatre; revelers celebrate throughout a labyrinthian house; musicians mount a political protest in song while being strategically hidden by flapping linen. The film offers original and iconic images at every turn–most impressively in retrospect, Angelopoulos’ recreation of a terrifying flood that destroys an entire village, while immediately charged with unforgettable power, is made all the more emblematic and representative of human tragedy this year after the Asian tsunamis. It’s a film that visually encapsulates the human experience in ways Tarkovsky or Bergman were attempting in the ’60s.

New Documentaries

1. Born into Brothels

This deeply moving and inspiring portrait of the children of prostitutes in Calcutta’s Red Light district isn’t nearly as dreary as it sounds–it focuses on a photojournalist’s efforts to teach them photography as a means of self-expression and emotional liberation. Since I first saw the film, there have been two interesting publications: 1) a book presenting the children’s work, and 2) a charming essay by one of the film’s co-directors for Landmark Theatres’ upcoming release.

2. Control Room *

Jehane Noujaim’s Direct Cinema documentary contrasting the American and Arabic media (particularly Al-Jazeera) and their diverging coverage of the US invasion of Iraq is one of the few even-handed accounts of the contemporary Arabic world to enter the American mainstream. Its depiction of the TV station’s Western-trained journalists and their relations with the international community (even the US press corp) is revelatory and refreshingly balanced.

3. Hijacking Catastrophe: 9/11, Fear & the Selling of American Empire

Of the slew of theatrically-distributed documentaries last year that were critical of the Bush administration’s policies, this film by the Media Education Foundation was the most level-headed, well-researched, and informative that I saw. It charts the fearmongering history of the neoconservative agenda from the Project for a New American Century in the Clinton years to 9/11 through the invasion of Iraq. Essential viewing, and the recently-released DVD offers a great deal of extended material.

4. Long Gone (2003)

One of my favorite documentaries of recent years is Dark Days, a film about the underground homeless residing in an abandoned subway tunnel in New York City. This film by Jack Cahill and David Eberhardt takes a similar approach and records several years in the lives of hobos who live by extensive train-hopping. Easily appropriating its moody Tom Waits score, the film constructs a deeply touching portrait of complex personalities, frail yet strong, living on the fringes of society. Visit the film’s official site, here.

5. The Models of Pickpocket (2003)

Babette Mangolte’s rich essay film is both a casual tribute to Robert Bresson’s 1959 film, a critical appreciation of it through the eyes of its nonprofessional actors many years later, and a personal journey as she travels from Paris to Mexico City while attempting to reflect on the impact of art on life. It’s a very welcome addition to the limited world of Bressonian discourse and a quietly touching investigation of the trail of people left by a film, scattered to the wind.

6. My Architect (2003) *

Nathaniel Kahn’s essay film exploring his deceased father’s monumental architecture and life history is a strong example of the recent spat of first-person, therapeutic films. An inspiring artistic analysis as well as a compelling portrait of a family (or several families) attempting to come to terms with their history and with themselves. Look for the US DVD in February.

7. Prisoner of Paradise *

There are so many Holocaust documentaries that it’s easy to begin to take them for granted, which of course, is something that should never be done. Nevertheless, every now and then one comes along that finds a new angle on Nazi terror, and this film is one of them. It follows the life and career and eventual deportation of Kurt Gerron (perhaps most memorable to US audiences for his performance in Von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel). Gerron was an entertainer by trade and the camp he was assigned to was Theresienstadt in Czechoslovakia, a concentration camp posing as a vacation resort, where he was forced to make a Nazi propaganda film. This movie effectively recounts Gerron’s story and highlights the twisted ethics at its core.

8. Proteus

Reportedly over 20 years in the making, this documentary about the life of 19th century artist and biologist Ernst Haeckel is entirely comprised of etchings from the era, including kaleidoscopic montages of Haeckel’s own wonderfully detailed illustrations of radiolarians and other microscopic marine life. Filmmaker David Lebrun compiles Haeckel’s life and times using Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” for atmosphere. Visit the film’s official site, here.

9. ScaredSacred

Winner of several Canadian awards, this inspiring NFB film was directed by Velcrow Ripper, a seasoned documentary professional who recently designed the sound for The Corporation (a film I’ve regretfully missed to date). It’s another essay film, as Ripper travels throughout the world to places of suffering (Bhopal, India; Bosnia; Ground Zero in New York City; etc.) in order to register the pain yet look for opportunities for hope. Meeting artists and activists around the globe, Ripper’s film manages to be uplifting without being naive. Visit the film’s official site, here.

10. The Story of the Weeping Camel (2003) *

A hybrid documentary and fictional feature, this lovely film from Mongolia harkens back to Flaherty with its ethnographic study of an isolated culture. Beautifully lensed, its real-life drama is perfectly shaped into a film with a solid dramatic arc.

Region-1 DVDs

1. The Battle of Algiers *, John Cassavetes: Five Films, The Rules of the Game, The Story of Floating Weeds/Floating Weeds

I’ve grouped all of my favorite Criterion Collection DVDs together so they don’t overrun my top ten list, but as a whole, Criterion remains the company whose output continues to represent the best transfers, films, and extras known to man.

2. Diary of a Country Priest *, A Man Escaped *, Lancelot du lac *

2004 was the year Robert Bresson films finally began making their way to DVD, and while the results were mixed (Criterion’s Diary boasts a jaw-dropping transfer but contains a middling commentary, and the two New Yorker releases suffer from PAL-to-NTSC blurring and speed-up sans extras), it’s nice to see the titles in better quality and availability than their VHS incarnations. Keep an eye out for the French MK2 set in March.

3. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde *

Toss out any notions you might have about monster movies, this is a electrifying 1932 film by Rouben Mamoulian, full of dramatic texture and visual invention, and this Warner DVD includes not only a solid commentary by Greg Mank, but also Fritz Freleng’s Hyde and Hare Looney Tunes short, and the inferior 1941 remake starring Spencer Tracy.

4. La Face cachÈe de la lune (The Far Side of the Moon) *

Although purists may decry the average video transfer given that the film was digital to begin with, this Canadian DVD represents the latest success by Robert Lepage and boasts a French audio commentary by him, as well as a short documentary on the film’s fascinating production. It’s a philosophical and imaginative gem of a movie, too.

5. Freaks *

Speaking of tossing out monster movie notions, Tod Browning’s banned masterpiece set in the early 20th century’s age of circus sensationalism continues to set the standard for using the auspices of genre (in this case, horror) to address deep questions regarding the complex relationship between inner and outer lives. The DVD includes a commentary and documentary.

6. Haibane Renmei *

This 13-episode Japanese television series on four DVDs received a steady disc-by-disc release by Pioneer from August 2003 to February 2004, but I consider it my major find of the year thanks to recommendations in Filmjourney discussions. With its genuinely imaginative alternate world, focused exploration of age-old philosophical questions, and a painterly visual style representing details of the everyday, Yoshitoshi ABe’s animated saga may be the first truly transcendental anime I’ve seen, and has replaced Grave of the Fireflies as my all-time favorite work of Japanimation. Its characters, setting, and questions continue to linger and inspire.

7. Kieslowski collection: The Scar, Blind Chance, Camera Buff, No End

Purists will point out that Kino’s series of pre-Decalogue Kieslowski films (along with A Short Film About Killing and A Short Film About Love) are merely slightly flawed PAL-to-NTSC ports of European DVDs, and they’re right. But once again, having these films on the shelves and stocked at online rental outfits available to Americans for the first time is an achievement not to be underestimated. Plus, they’re packed with extras. Now all we need are Kieslowski’s documentaries…

8. More Treasures from American Film Archives *

If it wasn’t for the timeliness of The Battle of Algiers, I’d call this towering release the best single DVD package of the year. Three discs, fifty films, reams of text and commentary, eclectic and entertaining viewing, and a lot of historical preservation.

9. Paris, Texas

Wenders’ heartfelt film about the difficulties of relationship and healing mysterious hurts that linger from the past is one of his best films; the fact that this impressive DVD also contains a Wenders commentary and deleted scenes and can be readily purchased for less than ten bucks (online) makes it a must have.

10. The Parson’s Widow

Any Dreyer release is a major event for cinephiles, but the fact that this is one of his most whimsical and entertaining silent films makes it all the more welcome. Bundled with two virtually unseen shorts, They Caught the Ferry and Thorvalsden: Denmark’s Greatest Sculptor.

Non-Region-1 DVDs

1. Au hasard Balthazar, Mouchette (Nouveaux Pictures, UK)

Bresson’s two heartbreaking, mid-period masterpieces are given luminous video transfers by Nouveaux Pictures from recently restored prints. Additionally, Mouchette has long been out-of-print on VHS in the US and Balthazar has never been issued.

2. The Complete Vigo (Artificial Eye, UK)

Artificial Eye outdoes themselves with a two-disc collection of Jean Vigo’s entire output (1930-1934): the romantic and masterly L’Atalante, as well as ¡ propos de Nice, Taris, and ZÈro de Conduite. Vigo died from leukemia at the ripe old age of 29, and the cinema will forever contemplate what it lost the moment he passed away. The DVD set also contains a flurry of documentary features.

3. King Lear * (Ruscico, Russia)

For my money, Ruscico’s major release of the year is Kozintsev’s 1969 epic adaptation of Shakespeare (or, more correctly, Boris Pasternak’s version of Shakespeare). Using a black-and-white widescreen canvas and rendering deep-focus compositions, Kozinstev’s film neatly combines strong performances with visual flare, accentuated by Shostakovich’s dramatic score.

4. The Lady of Musashino (Artificial Eye, UK)

While the fact that this Mizoguchi film has never been released on video in the US should entice you alone, it’s also a prototypical work of the Japanese master, starring Kinuyo Tanaka as a troubled wife of a philandering husband in postwar Japan. Mizoguchi’s classic “feminism” (described by critic Audie Bock as a Japanese fascination for women as much as any desire for political reform) is on full display as Tanaka’s character suffers indignities and refuses indulgences, thus becoming a moral and spiritual paradigm for the men in her life. This is a bare bones DVD with a merely passable video transfer, but the film is a lost gem rediscovered.

5. Le Roi et l’oiseau (Studio Canal, France)

One of the giants of animation was Paul Grimault (1905-1994), who has been associated with Max Ernst and Jacques Tati. Beginning as a graphic artist and moving into advertising animation, it wasn’t until after WWII that he embarked on a collaboration with writer Jacques PrÈvert and produced La BergËre et le ramoneur, a film that was never completed due to lack of funds but in 1952 was released to the public anyway. In 1967, Grimault obtained the negative and began a full-scale redesign of the entire film, working for years on the project until 1980, when it was finally released as Le Roi et l’oiseau (The King and the Mockingbird). The film is an exhilarating art deco fantasy with supremely imaginative settings (notably, an impossibly huge castle and a giant robot) and surprisingly absurd touches amid an emotionally satisfying story. Studio Canal’s two-disc special edition is a joy to behold even if it doesn’t contain English subtitles; the plot is perfectly discernible without them.

6. El Sol del membrillo (Dream of Light) (Rosebud, Spain)

Victor Erice’s third and most recent feature was famously voted as the best film of the ’90s by a poll conducted by the CinemathËque Ontario, and its quiet, philosophical charm is poetic and evocative. Documenting the artistic process of creating a single still life painting of a quince tree by Antonio LÛpez GarcÌa, the DVD is packed with extras, including a 40-page booklet in Spanish that makes it difficult to close the disc case. A rare VHS by Facets exists in the US, but this disc is substantially better quality.

7. Triple Agent * (Blaq Out, France)

Blaq Out offers a very fine DVD of Eric Rohmer’s latest film, one that has so far eluded North American distribution, but is nevertheless an engaging and compelling work by the octogenarian filmmaker. The DVD includes a host of subtitle options as well as an informative interview with two historians.

8. Until the End of the World (Mondo Home Entertainment, Italy)

This three disc Italian set offers Wender’s roughly five-hour director’s cut of his extended cyberpunk drama, and although it doesn’t contain English subtitles, most of the film is in English anyway. A quick write-up on the disc can be read here.

9. Werckmeister Harmonies/Damnation (Artificial Eye, UK)

Cinephiles have been clamoring for the work of Hungarian BÈla Tarr to appear on DVD and last year, it finally did as this double bill with 2000’s Werckmeister, Tarr’s most recent film, and 1998’s Damnation, the first film to fully exhibit the aesthetic approach of his recent magesterial, black-and-white tone poems. Impressively, the DVD also includes a 40-minute interview with the normally reticent director.

10. Whistle Down the Wind (Carlton Visual Entertainment, UK)

This is a simple pleasure, a nice presentation of a British classic directed by Bryan Forbes (Seance on a Wet Afternoon) that became the basis for an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. The film is a prime example of magical realism, capturing the idiosyncrasies of rural life in northern England in its tale of three children who discover a wounded man hiding from the law in their barn and mistakingly wonder if he’s Jesus Christ. The potential melodrama of the premise is completely avoided, making the film a carefully observed and deftly handled parable that deserves a wider contemporary audience.

Theatrical Revivals

1. The Battle of Algiers *

2. Chantal Akerman documentary retrospective *

3. Kuroneko (Black Cat in the Forest) *

4. The Lonely Voice of Man *

5. La Noire de… (Black Girl) *

6. Nuri Bilge Ceylan retrospective *

7. Orson Welles retrospective

8. Playtime *

9. Salt of the Earth *

10. Yasujiro Ozu retrospective

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