2006 Top Ten

The Death of Mr. Lazarescu

Drawing up a list of favorite films each year can be a lengthy but illuminating task, especially for those of us lucky and/or obsessed enough to watch a lot of good movies; on a list of ten, one can easily spend more time deciding which films to exclude than include. This year was no exception; between large festivals and small ones, limited engagements, and wide releases, I spent innumerable hours immersed in fantastic cinema in 2006. But it deserves mentioning that Los Angeles remains by and large an industry town, and despite the efforts of the redoubtable Laemmle chain, the Landmarks, and a variety of special venues, the city remains hamstrung by serious commuting problems, disassociated suburbs, and a lack of a centralized cinephile community. If New York City screens the most diverse films in the nation, Los Angeles is a distant second.

It’s true, for example, that two of the most acclaimed documentaries of the year, Iraq in Fragments and My Country, My Country, both played here–but only as one-week limited engagements in Santa Monica and Beverly Hills, both cities a two-hour drive for me on an evening with good traffic. I regret having missed them, but I should also add that for the greater part of the year, I was in such despair over the chaos in Iraq that I thought humanist portraits would only topple me into oblivion. Who could’ve known that after nearly four years, Americans would finally demand a new direction last November? Films that once may have served as private requiems now seem like emblems for change. I’m looking forward to catching up with them soon.

Luckily, both films will play at the Palm Springs International Film Festival in a week, a festival recently billed as one of the most heavily attended in the US (second only to Seattle); and with 254 films from 73 countries, it’s certainly one of the largest. I’ve spent the last few weeks writing some of the film descriptions for their festival catalogue, so I’m looking forward to revisiting some titles and discovering new ones.

The other major event in early 2007 will be the re-opening of the UCLA Film and Television Archive in its new Billy Wilder Theater, the new screening facilities for a major exhibitor of new and old films that has been sorely missed the last six months. With Rossellini and Godard retrospectives, and their annual Iranian series planned for the spring, I expect to spend more than a few weekends in Westwood.

So here are my ten favorite new releases I saw this year. Given the nature of the internet, I don’t see any reason to restrict myself to films screened only in Los Angeles, so if I include a film that has yet to open in your area (or DVD region), consider this an early recommendation.

1. The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (Cristi Puiu, Romania)

It’s so gratifying to see this film deservedly placing at the top of notable year-end polls these last few weeks. I’ll never forget trying to defend it during an argument with an older middle-aged man just shy of a year ago at PSIFF; to be fair, it hit a nerve with him: “After thirty minutes of watching that guy pukin’ and complainin’, I’d had enough,” he insisted, no doubt fearing his own encroaching future. But the beauty of the film–an almost real-time examination of an aging Romanian’s last hours as he’s shuttled from hospital to hospital–is the depth of observation director Puiu places on the pukin’ and complainin’ guy, an “uncinematic” character if there ever was one but also a telling mirror for every character he encounters. Puiu’s achievement isn’t that the film transcends its premise, but that in focusing so closely on Lazarescu, it generates endless layers of emotional and philosophical resonance. (Kudos to Tartan Video for releasing the film on DVD with a long Puiu interview; curses for using a subtitle font that is virtually unreadable.)

2. Still Life (Jia Zhangke, China)

Not only is Jia’s film an engrossing and beautiful examination of the irretrievability of the past, it emerged as the most complex of several TIFF films (Manufactured Landscapes, The Missing Star, Jia’s own documentary Dong) examining the sociological and physical effects of the Three Gorges Dam project currently under construction in China. Jia expertly captures the absurdity and drama of human figures adrift on an alienated Earth, framing stunning compositions of workers toiling in mountains of rubble, and relationships in various states of disorientation overwhelmed by the nation’s mad rush to modernization.

3. Oxhide (Liu Jiayin, China)

I was going to call this the most intimate film on my list, but it’s a showdown between this and Hamaca Paraguaya. Shot in Cinemascope DV in a 50-square meter apartment by a 23-year-old film student and her parents (playing alter egos), the film details the interpersonal bonds and tensions that arise from a failing family leather business. A model of rigor even in this day of meditative Asian art films, the entire film is comprised of 23 static, dimly-lit shots at often oblique angles. Yet the portrait that emerges is one of subtle warmth and kinship in a world that is simultaneously unpredictable and constraining. Cinema Scope called it “the most important Chinese film of the past several years,” and I don’t doubt it.

4. Colossal Youth (Pedro Costa, Portugal)

Along with Syndromes and a Century, this film remains the one from TIFF I’m most eager to see again; both films remain vivid in my memory despite having experienced their poetics in less than ideal circumstances (near the end of an exciting but exhausting ten-day marathon of art films). Since then, I’ve tracked down an unsubtitled version of Costa’s O Sangue (1989) and the beautiful, subtitled French DVDs of Casa de Lava (1995) and Ossos (1997); all three films have given me a better appreciation of the filmmaker’s intensely meticulous compositions, meditative portraits of Lisbon’s destitute poor, and challenging sense of narrative ellipsis. Although Costa’s cinematic influences are wideó-Night of the Hunter, Jacques Tourneur, Straub-Huillet, maybe Bressonó-his films are entirely his own. He has emerged as a world class filmmaker fully deserving wide discovery.

5. Hamaca Paraguaya (Paz Encina, Paraguay)

This minimalist film from Paraguay-óits first in three decades-óis easily among the most beautiful and moving films of the year. With only perhaps a dozen camera setups, the film presents an elderly couple and their hammock in the jungle conversing about a dog barking in the distance, an impending rainstorm, and most of all, their absent son, who has gone off to war and never returned. The long takes, the absence of a traditional plot, and the pregnant atmosphere generate a sense of mounting anticipation: at once quotidian as well as sacred, the filmís quiet depth of feeling is sublime.

6. Climates (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey)

Ceylan is a filmmaker who fortunately has recently caught the eye of US distributors, and his films’ psychological (and somewhat biographical) themes, compositional motifs, and lush visual textures continue to be mesmerizing. (If you haven’t seen them already, check out his extraordinary photographs as well.) My friend Darren Hughes may bristle at the suggestion, but if Cocoon (1995) and The Small Town (1998) are Ceylan’s most Tarkovskian, and Clouds of May (1999) his most Kiarostamiesque, then Climates is his most Antonioniesque. That’s not to say he’s merely aping these filmmakers or even delving into similar themes, but stylistically, his latest film expresses the dissolution of a relationship using every nuance of light, sound, and space it can…and the results are stunning.

7. Pan’s Labyrinth (Guillermo del Toro, Mexico)

I loved this film for all the reasons I was disappointed by Alfonso CuarÛn’s Children of Men despite the latter’s technical virtuosity: the violence and sadism is never a thrill ride but always a moral issue; the film’s vision of humanity is far more balanced, including warm and committed characters rather than merely eccentric, opportunistic, or destructive ones; the film’s conflict is rooted in actual historical realities (Franco’s post-Spanish Civil War) rather than half-baked political impressions; and it’s a multilayered and superbly constructed double narrative with a mythic force that only grows upon reflection. In short, Del Toro’s “adult fairy tale” is a deeply compelling and provocative melding of genre boundaries. I have no qualms describing it as a fantasique Schindler’s List, yet Del Toro offers a more piercing commentary on the delusions of power than Spielberg ever mustered.

8. Woman on the Beach (Hong Sang-soo, South Korea)

I’ve long been a fan of Hong’s aesthetically precise work, which in the past focused on the twists and turns of fate in contemporary relationships in ways that shattered illusions and revealed the often broken, awkward, and selfish persons within. His latest film remains true to that theme yet does so with a greater sense of compassion and warmth; as a result its humor and insights are positively infectious. A film director meets two women while working on a screenplay at a resort town, and their resulting love affairs critique the extremes of romantic idealization and personal intolerance. Like Rohmer at his finest, the film is both lithe and lingering; I saw it twice and would gladly watch it again.

9. Play (Alicia Scherson, Chile)

I was really disappointed this film didn’t receive greater exposure, even though Scherson won Best New Narrative Filmmaker at the Tribeca film fest and it has been picked up for theatrical distribution in the UK. (Let’s hope for a DVD release at least, a fate refused my favorite South American film from last year, Ana Poliak’s incisive Parapalos.) Visually bright and bold, yet delicate regarding its forlorn and spiritually seeking characters, the film charts the humorous ironies and coincidences that befall a group of young characters crisscrossing through Santiago. Scherson’s spontaneous formal whimsy might be compared to early Godard, but its her deep feeling for the romance and absurdity that arise from living among millions of people in a crowded, urban environment that makes the movie so special. It’s also the best-looking movie shot on DV I saw all year.

10. A Scanner Darkly (Richard Linklater, USA)

I’ve always thought it odd that of all SF masters, Philip K. Dick’s work has enjoyed bountiful film adaptations, given its disorienting spin on reality and fantasy, and New Wave emphasis on psychology. Be that as it may, Linklater’s second rotoscope film after the superb Waking Life (2000) is the most accurate translation of Dick’s late period to the screen yet. Surprisingly, Linklater opts for a more realistic approach than he did for his freewheeling predecessor, and the anonymous freeways, apartments, and streets of Los Angeles provide–as they do Dick–a concrete reality that grounds the film’s psychedelic shifts. And while the protagonist’s split personality may inevitably have been explored with more detail in the novel, the film remains a lively and memorable evocation of Dick’s carefree but politically ineffectual drug culture and corporate paranoia.

Ten strong honorable mentions go (alphabetically) to A Prairie Home Companion, Army of Shadows, Buffalo Boy, Cavite, Iron Island, Offside, Old Joy, Requiem, Times and Winds, and When the Levees Broke.

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