Thursday, January 10, 2008

Top Ten (or 20), Part 2


Eastern Promises (David Cronenberg): Cronenberg presents his genre infused follow up to his most critically acclaimed film, A History of Violence, with this study of Russian gangsters operating in London. In its own way, this film could also be titled after the previous, with cycles of familial violence repressing and obliterating the young. Vigo Mortensen gives his best performance ever - a violent, stoic man who, much like his Tom Stall character, is hiding his true self. A History of Violence asked the question “can a bad man willfully become a good one?” Eastern Promises asks the opposite.

Los Muertos (Lisandro Alonso): this strange Argentinean film screened for a week at Facets Multimedia early this year to virtually empty houses. Jonathan Rosenbaum of the Chicago Reader gave it a “critic’s choice” blurb, and Nathan Lee at the Village Voice saw fit to write about it twice. Otherwise, it was essentially ignored, to the detriment of all of us. As much an opaque character study as a beautiful road movie, the film follows a man named Vargas, recently released from prison and now seeking his daughter. There is little dialogue, but the film is so ravishingly beautiful as to put to shame Carlos Reygadas’ pretentious, art house pandering Silent Light.

Zodiac (David Fincher): This tale of a particular brand of American compulsiveness and obsession is hyper linear and aggressively compulsive. Zodiac ultimately denies narrative pleasure with its inconclusiveness – perhaps explaining its disastrous theatrical release in early 2007. At least you have a chance to see it now on DVD.

Exiled (Johnny To)

Election (Johnny To)

Election II (Johnny To): If you live in Chicago, 2007 was a good year to be a To fan. His two part Hong Kong gangster epic Election and Election II finally made it to screens, albeit in a round about way: made a year apart (2005 and 2006, respectively), Election II was eventually released first and renamed Triad Election so as not to allude to a previous installment that nobody could see. Far be it for me to suggest that such a distribution pattern is ass backwards (literally) and counter intuitive. I can only imagine that Part II was an easier sale, as the tensions set up in Part I don’t explode until the next film, and violent confrontation sells better than the emotions leading up to them. Exiled took far less time to reach our shores, but despite having the best action scenes of the year (and a good review from The New York Times), it failed to make much of an impression on anyone. The film is a simple tale of loyalty and honor among thieves, with a healthy dose of Leone-esque widescreen mayhem thrown in for good measure. I found the film to be beautiful and quietly moving, although some friends disagreed with my assessment. Regardless of how seriously one decides to take such endeavors, as pure spectacle it is vastly superior to anything coming out of Hollywood, where tripe like Shoot’em Up is all the imagination they can muster.

Couers (Private Fears in Public Places) (Alain Resnais): Perhaps the greatest living French filmmaker returns with a beautiful evocation of a stage bound Paris, where various relationships take flight or crumble. While the film follows sad, lonely people, it is never less than hopeful, and Resnais’ masterful mis-en-scene is breathtaking in its complexity. No one has filmed simple spaces so inventively this year.

Atonement (Joe Wright): Much like No Country For Old Men, I’m (almost) embarrassed to even mention this art house hit, recipient of so many accolades and kudos as it is. But it is a lovely film, full of loss and longing, and well shot by director Wright. He occasionally succumbs to picture-postcard vistas, that most tired period piece motif. But he also gets a lot right, almost never lingering over his own period details or old-time fashion, and the films sound design is impressive, the clacking of a type writer mingling and turning into its own distinct rhythm. While I suppose you don’t need me to tell you to go and see it, it is still in theatres and worth watching on the big screen rather than waiting for a DVD release

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Andrew Dominik): Perhaps the most beautiful, and disturbing, piece of American this year (following There Will Be Blood). The Coen Brother’s long time cinematographer Roger Deakins also shot Dominik’s masterpiece, a meditation on a grimy, gritty old west and tortured celebrity worship. Casey Affleck’s Bob Ford is a nervous, jittery little fellow whose unrequited love for Jesse James turns violent after his affections are snubbed. Brad Pitt gives his best (only?) performance since Fight Club, full of charm and venom and quiet repose. This film was as unsuccessful in theatres as Fincher’s Zodiac, although the two films represent ambitious portraits of American failure and depression, microcosms of society turning neurotic and paranoid. I suppose it makes a certain kind of sense that people would rather see National Treasure: Book of Secrets than admit that our pop culture has turned deviant, voyeuristic, and devoid of artistic merit.

I plan on adding (hopefully soon) one more installment to this little list of mine, highlighting a handful of films that played ludicrously briefly in Chicago (read: one screening each) and that have resurfaced on DVD. It has become increasingly clear that DVD is a viable option for foreign film distribution, and the format should be acknowledged as such. So, until the next time...

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