Happy Birthday Miriam

Miriam Hansen would have celebrated her 62nd birthday today. It was a happy coincidence that we shared birthdays, which served as a reminder each year to stay in touch long after I left graduate school. News of her death this past February, despite her long struggle with cancer, came as a shock. She was an incredible force of a person — so much so that you expected if anyone could beat this, she would. She was tirelessly driven and unfailingly generous, of her time, her unique insights, and her disarming sense of humor.

We all relied on Miriam. . . to provide unblinking, fair critique of one’s work, to courageously (especially in the face of serious illness) set the standard for academic rigor among her colleagues, and to lay the groundwork for the next generation of scholars and students, not least with the founding of the Cinema and Media Studies program at the University of Chicago, of which she was very proud and I am thankful to have played a part in its early days. Yes, a rare, beautiful force who truly inspired others to achieve their best.

I feel very fortunate to have known her and I miss her, especially today.

Friendly Neighborhood Psychotherapist

Robert Wiene, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, 1919

Robert Wiene, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, 1919

Dave Kehr reviews a new box set of German Expressionist films issued by Kino International and name drops so-called naïve realist Siegfried Kracauer and his 1947 study From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film.

It’s good to see Robert Wiene’s iconic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari given some historical and stylistic context and, moreover, to see this period in film history brought into the light of mainstream, non-academic attention. Now if only I could convince SG to “revisit” these classics.

Best Films of 2005

Michael Haneke, Caché (Hidden), 2005

Michael Haneke, Caché (Hidden), 2005

At the Crossroads.

Many critics, filmmakers, stars, and other industry types claim that 2005 was a watershed year in Hollywood film, a year that witnessed daring approaches to subject matter, breaks with long-held taboos, and renewed creativity in film form. Even the most casual observer can divine this running argument/mantra from recent award ceremony acceptance speeches (more than usual), on the pages of interviews and star profiles in the New York Times and other major publications, and over the idle chatter of talk show hosts and morning lifestyle TV programs. It is as if the mainstream American movie industry is turning a blind eye to reality and believes if they just keep repeating “There’s no place like home” they will find themselves comfortably back in Kansas — a place free of iPods and piracy, gaming consoles and first-person shoot-em-ups, and HBO and HD. Or better put, a place where these things are drowned out and overshadowed by the high-quality Hollywood-branded sounds and images one finds on screen at your local movie theater.

For years, the argument has always been technical — bigger, louder, three-dimensional, full color — a richer, more immersive sensory experience. Now, that richness is delivered in terms of content: the Art of Cinema in the Age of Experience. Tonight, we will likely see Brokeback Mountain, Good Night and Good Luck, March of the Penguins, Crash, The Constant Gardener, Capote, and Walk The Line variously rewarded; Hollywood will dutifully stay on message. And, while these films do contain promising bits, most especially strong acting, as complete works they were just so-so, my interest and delight ebbing not long after the first reel. Yes, even the penguins felt a bit re-hashed from earlier triumphs like Winged Migration (Perrin, 2001). Please don’t send hate mail!

I’m not saying these movies were bad, just that they weren’t that good, you know? In your heart of hearts, was it really that great of a year for American cinema? Even lions of independent film didn’t live up to previous heights: Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers, and Linklater’s Bad News Bears remake were largely missed opportunities, great filmmakers on cruise control if not asleep at the wheel.

To clarify, I’m not making the mistake of claiming that all movies fell short, that the history of cinema has seen its last days (this time for real). No no, quite the contrary. I am sure that many hours of amazing work is out there, perhaps much of it from Asia and Europe. No doubt more rigorous moviegoers can attest to this but I can only comment on the few dozen that I did get a chance to see, and if I were to speak honestly, many of them were stinkers.

But not all. While Hollywood and the Culture Industry place value and reward accomplishment in all the wrong places, I found plenty to celebrate too.

Film continues to thrive, continues to adapt and absorb, and to provide seemingly limitless opportunities to inspire and move, delight and entertain, and, on those rarest of occasions, challenge and shock one’s sensibilities. In compiling these best of lists every year, I am at once applauding and acknowledging this elasticity as well as the specific accomplishments of individual artists, and from a reverse angle, marking my own fleeting yet lasting moments of insight at the intersection of the two.

Top 5 Movies of 2005 (theatrical screenings or otherwise):

Caché (Hidden) (Haneke)

The puzzler of the year — full of questions and few answers, an exercise in self-reflexivity, genre splicing and indeterminacy, a staging (I hesitate to say critique) of bourgeois values — in other words, the latest chapter in the continuing adventures of Michael Haneke, author of the equally profound and provocative Code Unknown and The Piano Teacher. With Caché, he juxtaposes two lives lived, that of a middle class talk show host, and an Algerian immigrant, two trajectories, one haunting and harassing the other, threatening to reveal its secrets, false assumptions, and self-induced and self-serving delusions. It’s also very much a “movie’s movie” in the sense that it articulates the act of constructing and decoding narrative cinema and it calls attention to the assumptions and strategies that we as an audience rely on and trust. That is not to say watching Caché is an overly analytical experience. Rather, its long takes, formal manipulations and cool detachment has quite the opposite effect, creating a palpable sense of dread, of tense discomfort and, with its celebrated closing shot, ultimately refusing to satiate.

The Squid and The Whale (Baumbach)

A well-made and well-acted tale of a dysfunctional Brooklyn family enduring the ugliness of divorce and the challenges of adolescence and pre-adolescence. Noah Baumbach’s thinly veiled memoir is mannered, wordy, and stiff but starkly honest and unapologetic at the same time. Thanks to SG for dragging me to see this one.

Batman Begins (Nolan)

I was pleasantly surprised by this latest installment in what had become a tired and bankrupt franchise. Christopher Nolan’s and Christian Bale’s caped crusader beats out all the hype, stylistic bravado, and titillation of Sin City (Miller, Rodriquez) hands down. The most entertaining Hollywood movie of the year.

No Direction Home: Bob Dylan Disc 1 (Scorcese)

Never a major Dylan fan like most of my friends, I think this was the key I needed to open the door, and it may have arrived at just the right time. No Direction Home provides an illuminating view of his early years and beginnings with classic Scorcese confidence. You can skip Disc 2.

Grizzly Man (Herzog)

I’m still undecided on this one. I found it both impossible to take seriously and all too serious. I couldn’t help but doubt the veracity of the images. It feels like a put on, too fantastic to be anything but a grand hoax, and yet it isn’t. The raw footage survives, the Herzog voice-over and selective editing provides critical distance, and we are served a unique portrait of one man’s choices, obsessions, and ultimate demise.

Honorable Mention: Nine Lives (Garcia)

Top 5 Repertory (seen for the first time in 2005):

The Saddest Music in the World (Maddin, 2004)
Les Bonnes Femmes (Chabrol, 1960)
Lost Highway (Lynch, 1997) (former “Best First Reel” winner)
Down By Law (Jarmusch, 1986)
The Cooler (Kramer, 2003)

Finally, in the spirit of Jonathan Rosenbaum’s F.W. Murnau award, the one movie I saw in 2005 that most impacted my appreciation and understanding of film history and confirmed my faith in cinema was Dziga Vertov’s Man with A Movie Camera (1929). A long-time gap for me, I’ve read enough about this film over the years that it felt as though I had seen it already. While dated at times in its politics and… how should I say this… enthusiasm for the potential of the medium to influence and inform society, the avant-garde inventiveness, tightly-constructed grammar, and sheer velocity of this one-of-a-kind film essay is unsurpassed.

Best Films of 2004

Richard Linklater, Before Sunset, 2004

Richard Linklater, Before Sunset, 2004

This could be the end of everything
So why don’t we go
Somewhere only we know?

- Keane, 2004 (via SG)

Choices Made.

As has become my habit/tradition, with a scant few hours to go before the Oscar ceremony celebrating the best of Hollywood films of the past year, I too want to offer a few thoughts on my favorite moments watching movies in 2004.

It was a varied and hurried year for me. I can’t remember having many opportunities to reflect on the films I saw to the degree that I am accustomed or prefer. I suppose the most celebrated and controversial of the year’s offerings was Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, an effort that left me strangely sympathetic for the targeted George W. The project backfired on both a rhetorical and emotional level, with its “shame on you” moral indignation. Trusted friends don’t share my intolerance for Moore’s tactics, excusing them instead on higher grounds, and I’ve decided maybe I just don’t like to be preached to, regardless of the message.

Other movies I should have liked more included Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, American Splendor (2003) and Garden State, solid outings all, by skilled filmmakers with interesting things to say. Loosely defined, they could be said to describe a kind of longing or searching, to map the emotional tumult of loss and displacement and that peculiar condition of loserdom. Each offers a schematic of how to cope with the heartbreak and kicks in the teeth, and even how to get back on track.

Sideways also has been widely praised for its adult take on life, its frank view of when things haven’t worked out the way one expected them to, and the different ways one might play the cards you’re dealt. Similarly, Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset might be summarized as a thesis on growing older, making choices and choices making you, missed opportunities, and the what if musings of thirty-somethings. It’s the more nuanced effort, in my opinion, matured like the wine appreciated in Sideways yet still ripe with possibility and surprise.

Top 5:

Before Sunset
Hotel Rwanda
Maria Full of Grace
Shrek 2 / The Incredibles (tie)
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Honorable Mentions: Yo, Robot, caught with SG in Lima before heading back to the States and Troy, viewed on a bus to Puno. Both were pure entertainment in unexpected contexts and both were testaments to the fulfillment of cinema’s early “universal language” aspirations.

Other recommendations in no particular order (viewed for the first time in 2004): Touching the Void (2003), Key Largo (1948), All the Real Girls (2003), Kieslowski’s Blind Chance (1987), Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest (1950), Haneke’s The Piano Teacher (2002), Linklater’s Tape (2001), To Be and To Have (2002), Spellbound (2002), The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), and The Station Agent (2003).

Best Films of 2003

Sophia Coppola, Lost in Translation, 2003

Sophia Coppola, Lost in Translation, 2003

Quiet Life.

Angels in America (Mike Nichols, 2003)

The best movie of 2003 wasn’t a movie, by some standards. It was closer to a television “event”, a two-part drama directed by Mike Nichols and staring Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, Emma Thompson among many others. Adapted from Tony Kushner’s play, and Broadway event in its own right, Angels in America successfully conveyed much of the grandeur, visual and non-visual poetry, and emotional impact of the original theatrical production. In fact, it is this theatricality that gave it a seductive freedom of form and no doubt attracted the high caliber acting troupe. Something to sink one’s teeth into! In all, it was a fine package, with all the trappings of success: the high-brow patina of HBO programming, strong source material, and amazing talent. Pacino, rarely a personal favorite, stepped up for a great performance depicting Roy Cohn, and Jeffrey Wright was riveting in his reprise of the role of Belize.

Lost in Translation (Sophia Coppola, 2003)

By contrast, the critical darling of the year, Lost in Translation was refreshing in its simplicity. Though derivative at times, Sophia Coppola’s latest effort emerged with a distinct auteur sensibility firmly intact. Even if we didn’t necessarily connect with the characters on screen, we sensed the quiet life of the writer and filmmaker behind the lens. Though having never been to Tokyo, I must add that the juxtaposition of East and West seemed to slouch too often toward stereotype and convenient narrative device. I wanted more tolerance but I’m not sure why . . . except for all the convenient, stereotypical reasons.

Finding Nemo (Andrew Stanton, Lee Unkrich, 2003), Winged Migration (Jacques Cluzaud et al., 2001/2002) (tie)

In less heady realms, animals reigned this year. Winged Migration, Finding Nemo, Whale Rider, and Seabiscuit all focused on creatures great and small in one way or another, and all contained some of my favorite filmed moments of the year. With Seabiscuit, I admit it was hard to swallow the sepia-toned documentary sleights of hand, but in the end, its grace, energy, and dignity was noteworthy.

Les Triplettes de Belleville (Sylvain Chomet, 2003)

Breaking with tradition, I’ve also decided to include Les Triplettes de Belleville, which I didn’t see until early this year. As with 2002’s Spirited Away, I’m duly impressed by the state of today’s animation. It’s hard to categorize Triplettes. A surreal cartoon? An inventive dream sequence? A musical celebration of the life of machines? All or none of the above, it was a joy to watch and I wholeheartedly recommend it.

Demonlover (Olivier Assayas, 2002)

But wait. Before you start thinking I’ve gone completely sentimental, quaking at the flap flop of gull wings and pulling for life’s underdogs, my final “Top 5” entrant is far from heart-warming. A cautionary narrative of exploitation, corporate greed, and the cultural and physical mutations spun by hyper-stimulation and virtual reality, Demonlover refuses to be forgotten easily. Having seen Assayas’s earlier meditation on violence and the collision of East and West, Irma Vep, I tend to place Demonlover on the other side of the looking glass he hints at at that film’s end.

Assayas is channeling much of contemporary culture here — mixing Lynch-inspired horror and Godardian anarchy with his own fetishistic take on adult manga animation and S&M tropes. The effect is difficult to bear and immediately begs the oft-asked question: how best to critique sexual exploitation and violence? And in depicting such violations without a corresponding moral indignation is the artist that much guiltier of committing the very crimes he seeks to condemn? Many have dismissed Demonlover on these grounds, claiming it to be nothing more than sensationalist trash, an irresponsible exercise in self-indulgence. For my part, I didn’t sense any joy in these images, no pleasure. A claim I can’t make so readily for a movie such as Tarantino’s Kill Bill, which covers some similar ground and could be thought of as a kindred spirit on the surface. My recommendation for Demonlover is qualified though. Prepare to be sickened, confused, and insulted. Imagine for a moment that film can still assault one’s senses and challenge one’s sensibilities rather than fulfill fantasies in spite of itself.

Best Films of 2002

Michael Haneke, Code Unknown, 2000

Michael Haneke, Code Unknown, 2000

In any relationship there are decisive moments, often apparently inconsequential but which in reality determine the future, just as a rock or a fallen tree up in the mountains may determine the course of a stream.

- Robert Hellenga, The Sixteen Pleasures

After Irony.

With spring upon us, and the Oscar ceremony — that final, self-congratulatory last word on industry achievement, if not cinematic excellence — only a few hours away, it seems high-time to list my own best film experiences of 2002. The fact that the U.S. is at war makes me more than a little self-conscious about the triviality of such indulgences; still I offer these thoughts perhaps as a brief respite from more grave matters, perhaps too as an inventory of world views counter to the unprecedented myopia that we seem to be victims of these days.

To begin, while the past year was eventful for me in many other ways, not least my marriage to SG, time spent in the cinema was regrettably less than most years previous. Highlights still emerged however, and not all were expected. I’d like to think my absence from film culture has been much less due to a lack of offerings than the growing demands of other pursuits and pastimes.

It is through this personal window of ever-shrinking time that I have culled the following favorites.

Code Unknown (2000, Haneke)

The best movie of the year was Michael Haneke’s Code Unknown (originally released in 2000, but not screened in Chicago until early 2002). Exploring several provocative, if not always original, ideas through loosely connected vignettes — the film is subtitled “Incomplete Tales of Several Journeys” — Code Unknown is a smart, well-realized, if often elusive work. I’ll be honest: on the surface, one may think this film is yet another European art house favorite, waxing about this or that philosophical conundrum. And while I am perhaps too forgiving of this type of movie, in this case, Haneke tempers his big ideas with skillful, unobtrusive filmmaking and an immediacy of experience that thankfully undercuts any threat of cliché or pretension.

The title itself is a clue to the film’s interest in the habits and heuristics of everyday interactions — how we signal distress or desire to one another and how these signals break down or miss the mark altogether; how racism in particular influences choices one makes and the roles one plays, not always by choice. Also, in the same vein as Kieslowski’s masterpiece, Decalogue, the film touches on the many different rules impacting one’s life, again both conscious and unconscious.

Though the movie includes many incidents and scenarios designed to raise difficult questions, two in particular stand out for me. In one, Anne, played by Juliette Binoche, is harassed on a subway car. It is a common occurrence which lacks any truly satisfactory remedy. People take advantage of others, they bully, they scare, and no matter how much one chooses to rationalize their choices — their insecurity, their own fears, their small opinion of themselves — the violence remains, dignity is challenged, and humanity is the worse for it. In another scene, the brutality is heard off-screen. At home ironing clothes and watching television, Anne overhears a neighboring couple’s argument and is unsure of what to do. Contact the police? Call for help? Intervene? Ignore? Decide it isn’t what you think it is? The scene is at once an isolated dilemma, and also emblematic of the paralysis imbued in a society that prizes individual freedom but isn’t sure of how to respond to the abuses that such freedoms afford. In a sense, it is this paradox that the film addresses again and again.

I’m Going Home (2001, Oliveira)

In recommending this movie, I know I’m going out on a limb. Oliveira’s latest effort to reach the U.S. is a tale of an aging actor (played by Michel Piccoli), and his life following the loss of his wife, including a failed effort to play in an American production of Ulysses (an homage to Contempt?). There is a dignity to the movie, one might say even a signature detachment, that threatens to alienate its audience. Nonetheless, I found the premise, and the portrayal of this man both moving and quietly instructive. A worthy alternative to the likes of About Schmidt.

The Hours (2002, Daldry)

The chick-flick of the year, if not the best movie of the year, The Hours will likely be remembered for the strong performances of its three lead actresses — Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore, and Nicole Kidman. It’s much-touted feminist sensibility also seems to have grabbed a fair bit of ink. While there in no doubt that these are prominent features, my own appreciation stemmed from its sobering treatment of depression, female or otherwise. A highpoint is Clarissa’s (Meryl Streep) wistful reflections on the small events in one’s life, often mis-recognized as insignificant or at best beginnings to something yet to come, something anticipated, rather than the key moments that they in fact turn out to be.

Spirited Away (2002, Miyazaki)

Like last year’s Waking Life, this tale of a young girl’s quest to rescue her family further expands the limits of animation, and not just in terms of technical achievement. Hayao Miyazaki’s inventive and entertaining Spirited Away follows an innocent’s journey into a magical and disturbing world, echoing such classics as Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz. I was especially impressed with how the film juxtaposes workaday details and realities with otherworldly flights of fancy.

Far From Heaven (2001, Haynes)

The critical darling of the year, I found Haynes’ redux of Sirkian 50s melodrama an over-saturated exercise in camp, and at times a victim of its own criticisms. I’ve clearly missed the point altogether. And it isn’t because I’m cold on melodrama. Remember Magnolia, and all of its excesses (and, interestingly, its shared cast)? A favorite. And Haynes’ forebears, Sirk and Ophuls? Gifted artists both. Perhaps it is Far From Heaven’s ambitiousness that prevents me from liking it more. As melodrama, it felt more mechanical than emotional, too concerned with re-enacting emotion rather than responding to its many (albeit codified) manifestations. As a political statement about the normative racism of 1950s America, I found it less than ground-breaking and even a bit precious. So, why is it here, amid my “favorites”? I’ve been laughed at for saying so, but the best way I can appreciate Far From Heaven is as a companion piece to Haynes’ 1995 masterpiece, Safe. I can’t think of a more horrifying portrait of the bankruptcy and lifeless disconnect of “late capitalist,” suburban American life. And it is the imagined conversation between these two films that I find most interesting. This and the fact that it has inspired several impassioned debates over the past year makes it a true stand-out, however frustrating.

Best Films of 2001

David Lynch, Mulholland Dr., 2001

David Lynch, Mulholland Dr., 2001

Really, Really.

In looking over what I consider to be the best movies of 2001, I find it difficult to find a common thread that holds them together, a consistent theme or formal element that I can point to and say — yes, there, that was 2001. If pressed, I might say that to some degree or another they each comment on film history’s age-old obsession, the blurring between illusion and reality. An inventory of: dreams, hyper-real animations, artificial intelligence, theatrics old and new, and more dreams. But that would be too easy.

I’ve cheated a bit, weighing in with more than my usual five current releases and five rep screenings. There were enough good movies this year, or rather, enough points of access to what is good in movies that I felt it worth bending my own self-imposed “rules.” Also, perhaps more than ever, the context within which I watched these films greatly influenced my reaction to them, for better or worse.

  1. Yi Yi (Yang, 2000)

See it.

  1. Mulholland Dr. (Lynch, 2001) and Waking Life (Linklater, 2001) (tie)

Mulholland Dr.

I had low expectations going in to Lynch’s latest and was more than a little put-off by the endless queue coiling from floor to floor, past Victoria’s Secret and Bally’s Total Fitness, at the new Landmark Century Theaters née mall. Little did I know what was in store. While I can’t say I understand exactly what is going on in MD, I can with a fair degree of certainty tell you that it is stunning to watch and captures a sense of Los Angeles that just seems right. This time out, Lynch manages to combine his trademark atmospherics and oddities with enough structure (including two compelling lead performances by Naomi Watts and Laura Harring) to hold one’s interest in solving his infinite puzzles. Think Maya Deren’s Meshes in the Afternoon (1943), Polanski’s Chinatown (1974), and Lynch’s own Twin Peaks universe rolled up into one.

Waking Life

I’ve seen Waking Life twice — the first time at a special festival screening in October at the Music Box with director Richard Linklater in attendance. I was the one sitting up front and to the right, next to the nervous guy who looked like the lead actor and Linklater regular, Wiley Wiggens. I think I enjoyed the discussion following the screening as much as if not more than the movie itself; Linklater was everything you would imagine him to be — smart, funny, unassuming, inquisitive, sincere, occasionally absent, and, well, real. I also imagine another reason I found this screening to be so profound was due to the then shifted world view in the air following the World Trade Center and Pentagon bombings. I couldn’t not think of the movie in relation to what I witnessed that day and what had been discussed and shared among family, friends, and colleagues during the weeks following. My second viewing, in a New York multiplex, lacked some of the initial energy and excitement of the first. I’m not sure why, though I suspect it might have been due in part to the fact that right then, in New York, people didn’t seem to need a movie to think about the kinds of ideas Waking Life explores. All the same, the film’s technical achievements alone make it the most inventive commercial film I’ve seen in some time. While some have suggested this merely masks a bland, even non-existent narrative, I found the essayistic construction to be a perfect counterpoint to the animated visualizations. It worked for me.

  1. Amélie (Le Fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain) (Jean Pierre Jeunet, 2001)

Like Zemeckis’s Forrest Gump (1994), Amélie is a movie about chance that leaves nothing to chance. What gets the story going, the roll of a ball across a floor and the treasure it reveals, while seeming haphazard and random, of course is far from it. And so it is also with the opening sequence of Gump, as we watch the whims of a feather floating to finally come to rest at our lead character’s feet, a box of chocolates carefully tucked at his side. The worlds that are created in each, both perhaps impossible to conceive without the help of computer generated imaging, are clearly guilty of a fair degree of manipulation; and it is on these grounds that it seems Amelie is most often dismissed. Her postcard Paris is suspiciously tidy, its streets a bit too scrubbed.

In years to come I might be a little embarrassed that I found such delight in the Amélie Poulain phenomenon. The first time I saw it, again at a sold out Music Box during the same festival weekend in October, I stood in the back of the theater for about 110 of the entire 122 minute run-time (I was a bit late). Keeping bathroom-goers up-to-date on the film’s goings-on during their absence added a memorable and complementary absurdity to the experience. People will likely remember the heroine’s big eyes, the whimsical feel-good story, the caricatured neighborhood ensemble, and the heart-warming message that goodness prevails and life has a funny way of working itself out. On the other hand, I hope not to forget the inventories of everyday rituals and likes (told with childlike velocity), the careful, even tedious attention to detail in Amélie’s elaborate (and at times problematic) stratagems, and even the rituals and rhythms internal to the film (Amélie’s rock throwing, daily stops at the produce stand, days at the café, her father’s hesitant mailbox visits, Nino’s obsessive collection of discarded coin-op instant photos, Collignon’s annual Renoir, the list goes on). It is as if Jeunet is at once saying these characters are stuck in the same rut day in and day out and need the likes of an Amélie to wake them up to the world around them, to a past and future not yet discovered, but in the same breath suggesting that such an awakening may only be understood and realized in these very same terms.

  1. Va Savoir (Rivette, 2001) and Moulin Rouge! (Luhrmann, 2001) (tie)

Va Savoir

This movie, the title of which might be translated best as “Go Figure,” possesses an equivalent disposition: spontaneous, irreverent, light-hearted, foolish, and elusive. Yet, where it lacks the mystery and ineffable spark of previous Rivette efforts such as Haut Bas Fragile (1995), Va Savoir manages to achieve a certain maturity underscored by self-awareness and acceptance.

Moulin Rouge

In this corner: a group of friends who hated this movie so much they couldn’t even finish watching the DVD. In the other: colleagues from work who reveled in its flamboyant visualizations, inventiveness and over-the-top numbers, and I almost forgot to mention, abundance of fishnet stockings and leggy show girls. My own mid-August viewing with SG in a dilapidated suburban Chicago theater amid a sparse crowd of seniors fell somewhere in between. Luhrmann should either be congratulated or slapped for the dizzying speed at which he moves us through his fin de siècle music box. Around and around, in and out, and in every other direction we go. Sheer spectacle is all there is, as it was then and forever more.

  1. Artificial Intelligence: AI (Spielberg, 2001) and Shrek (Adamson, Jenson, et al., 2001) (tie)


Kubrick! Spielberg! The Blue Fairy! Teddy! Kubrick! Spielberg! By turns, intolerable and inspired, AI is another one of those movies that suffers from its own ambitions. Still, past the sentimentality, the (purposefully?) terrible performances (Haley Joel Osment not among them), and the misanthropy, lies a dark examination of the complexities and sometime contradictions of what we might consider technological and socio-economic “progress,” prosperity, personal fulfillment, compassion, and will. It is this last human trait that I found most horrific and interesting in the film. A machine never quits. Never. By way of comparison, I was reminded of the gradual descent into oblivion described in Auster’s City of Glass, where a first step outside one’s doorway leads to another, and then another, until full stop, maybe. Nothing but a cryptic map left behind, a notebook, a mere trace.


The result of hundreds of processor years, millions of polygons, and a world-class team of programmers, animators, and designers, Shrek proved to be one of the most technically innovative films of the year, and one of the most clever.

Honorable Mention: Ghost World (Zwigoff, 2001)

I have to include this film if only for the fact that I recommended it to a dear friend — someone who has always impressed me with her open-mindedness with regard to movies — who, when I recently inquired what she thought of it, told me that it is without a doubt the worst movie she’s ever seen. I can’t say that my reaction to Ghost World is nearly as strong, one way or the other, but I did find it enjoyable. While true in its way and brutally funny at times, I wish it had some of the quick-change whimsy of the main character Enid to counter-balance its cool cynicism. Wasted energy perhaps, but energy all the same.

Best Repertory (in no particular order):

  1. Band of Outsiders (Godard, 1964)
  2. Weekend (Godard, 1967)
  3. Some Like It Hot (Wilder, 1959)
  4. A Brighter Summer Day (Yang, 1991)
  5. Trois Couleurs: Rouge (Kieslowski, 1994)

Best Films of 2000

Paul Thomas Anderson, Magnolia, 1999

Paul Thomas Anderson, Magnolia, 1999

The Buzzing. Always the Buzzing.

Top 10:

1. Werckmeister Harmonies – Tarr 2. Magnolia – Anderson (1999) 3. The House of Mirth – Davies 4. L’Humanité – Dumont (1999) 5. Beau Travail – Denis 6. Les Glaneurs et La Glaneuse (Gleaners and I) – Varda (documentary) 7. Tie: Rosetta – Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (1999) and Seule (Alone) – Zonca (short, 1997) 8. Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai – Jarmusch 9. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon – Lee 10. Not I – Jordan (short)

Best Rep:

1. Rear Window – Hitchcock (restored, 1954) 2. Nosferatu – Murnau (1922) 3. Seconds – Frankenheimer (1966) 4. Sweet Smell of Success – Mackendrick (1957) 5. Rififi – Dassin (1955)

Guilty Pleasure:

Road Trip – Phillips

If I Could Do It All Over Again and Stay Home (in no particular order):

American Psycho – Harron, The Cell – Singh, La Captive – Akerman, Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. – Morris, Gladiator – Scott

If I Could Do It All Over Again and Go Out (in no particular order):

The Beach – Boyle (DVD), The Ninth Gate – Polanski (V), Loss of Sexual Innocence – Figgis (DVD), Erin Brockovich – Soderbergh (V)

Gleanings from Otherwise Unreadable Notes:

“2000. The opposite of ‘99.” a colleague and friend remarked recently, on our way to lunch: stir-fried bean curd and vegetables, hot, white (or fried) rice, and a (complimentary) fortune cookie for $5.49.

“But it’s also the sort of Tsui Hark film that Zhang Yimou might have made: serene and outrageous, contemplative yet filled with slam-bang popcorn, a spider inside a butterfly.” — Chuck Stephens writing an ambivalent review of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Film Comment, 11-12/00)

I hear theaters are closing, maybe the result of consolidation or maybe because the films/movies themselves aren’t attracting audiences like they used to. Even I, of the “you must see it on the big screen!” persuasion, spent considerable time menuing through DVDs, listening to this or that director’s insights and idle chatter, scanning once lost and/or censored footage, and clamoring down ‘making of’ rabbit holes. In fact, to be honest, the best film I saw this year was the DVD version of Kieslowski’s Decalogue  (1988). Long-awaited, it was one of those rare experiences you find yourself in the middle of, realizing the end is sadly near and immediately dreading its arrival.