Friday, December 30, 2005

The Year in Film

As much as a number of my colleagues seem to be convinced that 2005 was a great year for film-going, I remain somewhat unimpressed by the quality of new work which I saw during the previous twelve months. To say this is not to imply that there was a dearth of films worthy of mention as one of the year's best: I was reasonably satisfied with the quality of all ten films I mentioned for my Senses of Cinema ten best list which I submitted a couple of weeks ago, even before I saw an eleventh which I feel definitely deserves mention (which I will in my 'top 11' to follow). However, it is my belief that there has been noticeably few all-time great films released in the past three or four years. Put another way, I would say of the half-dozen or so best films that have been made since the conclusion of the 90s, only one was made after 2001 (and that was 2002's Russian Ark). And concerning these masterpieces -- Yi Yi, Werckmeister Harmonies, The House of Mirth, In the Mood for Love, I'm Going Home, Mulholland Drive, Spirited Away, Russian Ark -- I'm not sure any (save the first) would rate with the half dozen or so best films of the previous decade, which were in a few cases were made by the same directors (Edward Yang, Bela Tarr, Wong Kar-wai, Manoel de Oliveira) who had made clearly superior films during the prior ten years.

All of this is to wonder whether we are beginning to find ourselves between generations of great filmmakers -- as we did, I would submit in the late 70s and early 80s before the Asian new wave which was ushered in by such talents as Yang, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Tian Zhunagzhuang, John Woo, Takeshi Kitano and Hayao Miyazaki. Perhaps my number one will prove to be the first great film by one of the next generation's greatest artists, Apichatpong Weerasethakul? Perhaps Lisandro Alonso and his Argentine cinema will become this decade's [early] Abbas Kiarostami and Iran? Perhaps Lucile Hadzihalilovic will experience a peak comparable to Jane Campion's in the early to mid 90s? Hopefully, 2005 will prove ultimately to be the beginning of something new, not the trough that seems from its final days.

Here they are, the eleven best films of 2005 (1-10 in order of preference, plus an 11th not in order):

Tropical Malady (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 04)
2046 (Wong Kar-wai, 04)
The Sun (Aleksandr Sokurov)
A History of Violence (David Cronenberg)
Los Muertos (Lisandro Alonso, 04)
Innocence (Lucile Hadzihalilovic, 04)
Three Times (Hou Hsiao-hsien)
L'Enfant (Luc & Jean-Pierre Dardenne)
Kings and Queen (Arnaud Desplechin, 04)
13 Lakes (James Benning, 04)

And the eleventh that I saw after my initial submission of the list:
Caché (Michael Haneke)

(For more detailed analyses of the best of these, see my annual annotated 'ten best' lists with a 2005 version to follow sometime next year.)

Then again, it was less the above films that truly rewarded my love of film this year than it was the rarely-screened silent, classical & post-classical Japanese pictures I saw as part of "The Beauty of the Everyday: Japan's Shochiku Company at 110," "Early Autumn: Masterworks of Japanese Cinema from the National Film Center, Tokyo," "The IFC Center's Weekend Classics," and "Naruse: The Unknown Master." For this cinephile, 2005 was the year of classical Japanese film in New York. It is only fitting that the best of these celebrated its fiftieth anniversary this past year.

Here are fifteen of the best:

Floating Clouds (Mikio Naruse, 55)
Humanity and Paper Balloons (Sadao Yamanaka, 37)
Boy (Nagisa Oshima, 69)
Wife! Be Like a Rose! (Naruse, 35)
Sound of the Mountain (Naruse, 54)
Mr. Thank You (Hiroshi Shimizu, 36)
Scattered Clouds (Naruse, 67)
Late Autumn (Yasujiro Ozu, 60)
The Whole Family Works (Naruse, 39)
Ornamental Hairpin (Shimizu, 41)
Flowing (Naruse, 56)
Every Night Dreams (Naruse, 33)
Women of the Night (Kenji Mizoguchi, 48)
Our Neighbor Miss Yae (Yasujiro Shimazu, 34)
Japanese Girls at the Harbor (Shimizu, 33)

Thursday, December 01, 2005

New Film: The Ice Harvest

Entering the final month of 2005, it has suddenly become clear to me just how atrocious this past eleven months have been for new American cinema. Aside from Canadian auteur David Cronenberg's masterful A History of Violence and German madman Werner Herzog's Grizzly Man, it seems reasonable to me that the modest virtues of Harold Ramis' The Ice Harvest may just make it the second or third runner-up on what is thus far a dismal list (save us Brokeback Mountain and The New World). Indeed, it is only the former that will figure on my year end's top ten list, not that that says anything for the relative quality of Hollywood. For 2002, for instance, I would not include a single American-financed film among my ten best (though again there is a Cronenberg film, Spider) even if I could name perhaps a half dozen very good films which I prefer to everything but A History of Violence and Grizzly Man this season. The point in this is that one, much of the best of world cinema happens outside the U.S.; and two, usually we fare quite a bit better -- Hollywood-wise -- than we have in 2005.

So, yes, if you've confined yourself to Hollywood pictures this year, by choice or circumstance, you most likely have convinced yourself that there are no good movies out there... and largely, you're correct. However, as I have said, there are modest virtues to be witnessed in the John Cusack-Billy Bob Thorton headliner, The Ice Harvest, which opened nationwide last week to below average reviews and an indifferent public -- judging by the poor box office. What critics and audiences have missed in passing over the über-cruel comedy cum neo-noir is this year's most extravagant reinterpretation of genre, in this case the Christmas film, even if the Ramis-helmer may at times seem like Bad Santa (2003) redux or a Coen Brothers retread.

In the Groundhog Day director's favor, however, is what might be judged to be the fuller reversal of genre (even if it can't equal Bad Santa's wicked pleasures) and the more generous picture, as it avoids the condescension of the Coen's, however nihilistic Ramis' perspective may be. The point is that The Ice Harvest operates according to a spatial logic that catalogues those places that Christmas movies tend to elide -- bars, strip-clubs... okay, lots of strip-clubs, etc. -- and a set of details that seem to cut against the holiday's mythical grain, be it Oliver Platt's Christmas Eve binge-drinking and subsequent purging, Thorton's porn video and even the (freezing) rainstorm itself, which Ramis snidely and economically introduces during the opening credit sequence with a few drops falling on a nativity Christ child. These are people and places which exist -- on Christmas just as they do anytime else -- but typically have no place in your typical Christmas movie... and rightfully so, one could argue.

Nevertheless, Ramis' Bad Santa set-up (which is surely the epochal film in this sub-subgenre) gives way to a Fargo (1996) or A Simple Plan (1998) without the accents -- or more importantly, given that we are talking about Witchita and not Minneapolis, the snow. Consequently, Ramis reminds us of his postmodern street-cred by giving us another generic mash-up, just as he presaged Pulp Fiction a decade earlier with his experimental Groundhog Day-time structure. Still, it is less the director's adept generic/tonal shift than it is the cohesiveness of his heterocosm that marks The Ice Harvest as noteworthy new Hollywood cinema. The very fact that The Ice Harvest engages our sense of narrative expectation, let alone the rigor of its conceit, provides its anomaly in the wasteland that has been 2005.