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.

Best Films of 1999

Olivier Assayas, Late August, Early September, 1998

Olivier Assayas, Late August, Early September, 1998

In Between.

Last year, in writing about my favorite films of 1998, I made some oblique comments about memory, and the idea that in putting pen to paper to recap favorite films of the year, one is in a sense “posting” a memory for later retrieval; and in so doing perhaps one is quite aware of what he or she wants to pack for the journey back. These comments were in no small part indebted to Richard Powers. This year, with the “odometric drift” into 2000 and all the hype that it has generated, these ideas seem all the more relevant as we try our best to somehow mark time’s passage, impossibly holding it still for a sentence or two. It’s become a habit.

First, the bad news:

There were several releases that disappointed this year including Egoyan’s Felicia’s Journey, Burton’s Sleepy Hollow, the long-awaited Lovers on the Bridge (save the famous, and wonderful, bicentennial fireworks sequence), Soderbergh’s The Limey, and American Beauty. Ok, maybe I’m cheating to say that American Beauty was a disappointment given that I didn’t have many expectations going in (“Isn’t he the guy that did that Nicole Kidman play on Broadway?”). It’s just that in the wake of all its critical success, among friends and foes, I’m left baffled (maybe as with my most over-rated vote for L.A. Confidential a ways back). Eyes Wide Shut (3) goes down as the most talked about and most quickly forgotten film of the year. Everyone had their take, including me, most of which found Kubrick more than a little detached and on the silly side. Despite, or (if I were to hedge my bets) because of, some of its indulgences, I found the project completely riveting, unfinished or not.

From the “but they were released last year” department:

Highest marks go to Malick’s Thin Red Line and the truly inspired Rushmore. Red Line sagged under its own weight a bit too often, but I didn’t care. It was a good piece to think about in conversation with Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, etc. but it was also fine to just experience it on its own terms. How is war best represented/translated? abstract? real? and what affords me the opportunity to even contemplate such things surrounded by stadium seating, low-sodium popcorn, and digital sound? Rushmore, in some ways equally mannered, proved to be a great, late discovery for me — an off-beat, touching story with quirky, sympathetic characters, and a rich take on loyalty, hard love, and life’s lessons. As a friend remarked, charming and smart at the same time; such a rare accomplishment in the midst of so many efforts that choose to forsake one for the other.

There were few American 1999 first runs that I can enthusiastically recommend let alone remember (if I had seen Magnolia before the end of the year, it would have easily topped my list). Blair Witch Project and The Matrix, while decent, ultimately didn’t deliver. Most of you know my feelings about Fight Club. And don’t get me started on Jar-Jar. In the face of all ironic poise, clever political readings, and “it would help if you’ve read the background” defenses, I still found Lucas’s latest contribution vacuous and mildly insulting (even more than expected). But will that stop me from seeing Episode II?

So, once again I find myself turning to the French, and their particular brand of storytelling and filmmaking, for solace and inspiration. Late August, Early September (1) sadly came and went with little notice. Following Irma Vep, Assayas is in minor key here, letting his actors bring to life what, in lesser hands, could have been a painfully trite story. I’m sure I am repeating myself when I say the good stuff is in the details and the brief glimpses — the “snapshots” embedded in a film. Often, Late August moves between a state of abstract free-fall and tempered calm; we get in close and then, just as suddenly, we take pause. . . watching thoughts climb an actor’s nervous smile, and contemplating too what, if anything, holds (these) things and people together. My love of Jeanne and the Perfect Guy (2), a musical about AIDS starring Virginie Ledoyen betrays perhaps a less than objective sensibility on my part (did I mention it is a musical starring Virginie Ledoyen?), but then isn’t that what these lists are about anyway?

In case you were beginning to think I don’t have much of a sense of humor, I want to point out a few so-bad-they’re-good moments as well, like watching If Lucy Fell on video with friends in upstate Michigan, or Doc’s screening of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. How can you not like the line/song: “Bless your beautiful hide”? Pixar also thrilled with both A Bug’s Life and Toy Story 2. Run Lola Run (5) was cool. And the year’s “Guilty Pleasure” award goes to a very hot afternoon Biograph screening of South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut (4).

And finally, the Best Repertory of the year:

  1. La Dolce Vita (a long time wish list entry finally enjoyed)
  2. La Belle Noiseuse (magisterial but brilliant in the details)
  3. Body and Soul (further evidence to support Rossen’s (The Hustler) place among Hollywood’s best)
  4. Lady From Shanghai (the way I like Welles — genre-driven, on-the-run, and rough around the edges)
  5. A Day in the Country (a Renoir short that is the perfect remedy for a loss of faith in the craft)

On the horizon:

Plenty to look forward to in the coming months including the re-release of Hitchcock’s Rear Window, Morris’s latest documentary, Mr. Death, a special screening of Tarr’s Satantango (7 1/2 hours!) at Doc as well as a series on Weimar German cinema. Many thanks for all of the film conversations and movie talk, and for putting up with my own ranting and raving. Cinema is most alive outside the theater.

Best Films of 1998

Jean-Luc Godard and Marina Vlady

Memory, then, is not only a backward retrieval of a vanished event, but also a posting forward, at the remembered instant, to all other future moments of corresponding circumstance.”

- Richard Powers

Taking Powers’s comments on the relationship between remembered moments and the posting forward of memories for later retrieval and correspondence as my cue, I sit down and offer you what I believe to be the best films of 1998. I offer these few movies, culled from nearly 100, as my own sort of posting and a beginning to something, a starting point perhaps for future discussion, not simply a wrap-up indicating it’s time to go home now that the show is over.

Best Video Viewing:

Godard’s Two or Three Things I Know About Her. A film-essay I couldn’t recommend to most, yet I find utterly compelling. Nothing less than a meditation on the nature of knowledge, Two or Three Things offers both an aesthetic and political critique of the image and the slippage between what we see and what we know. Increasingly didactic and less playful by 1966-67, Godard never fails to remind us that the sounds and images we witness are both over-determined (corrupt?) yet strangely devoid of any consistent, self-evident meaning. Because of the political fervor of the period and the inscrutability of many of Godard’s reference points, Two or Three Things asks a lot of — but doesn’t insult — its viewer.

Best Trailer:

The Thin Red Line. I look forward to seeing this film in the next couple of weeks when it finally reaches Chicago. The trailer includes one particularly amazing shot depicting a woman swinging back in a swing from right to left. As she sweeps across the screen, with her head titled back, the scream of incoming artillery assaults one’s senses from the right. The juxtaposition produces a unique sense of abstract vertigo.

Guilty Pleasures:

Wild Things, for all the wrong reasons, including a Morphine-induced soundtrack.

Out of Sight. Soderbergh may be slumming in Hollywood here (as Rosenbaum laments), but this unassuming genre piece is well-shot (especially a seduction scene between George Clooney (never a favorite) and Jennifer Lopez), has an inspired soundtrack and provides a thrilling two-hour cat-and-mouse chase mixed with a surprising dose of chemistry.


Mamet’s Spanish Prisoner. While I was impressed with Mamet’s latest, especially his signature sharp-tongued rapid-fire dialogue and intricate plotting, I found myself wanting more. And though it was a ready-made addendum to my “Fallen Women/Con Men” series at Doc this fall, the themes of chance, and the manipulation thereof, lacked a sense of purpose beyond the paranoid’s cry: “no one [and no thing] is what they seem.” I was reminded of Linklater’s Before Sunrise as Mamet takes us back through scenes (of the crimes), revealing to us the cracks and visual sleights of hand that we had missed the first time around. In Sunrise, during a similar return visit through previous “sets,” Vienna no longer appears quite as indifferent; instead, the city is invested with the private history just played out in the film — a history that we share in some small part. Mamet leaves you feeling cheated, robbed, suspicious, while Linklater leaves you feeling nostalgic and strangely hopeful despite everything.

Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Johnny Depp is great, the visuals are great, even the Ricci cameo isn’t bad. But again I was hoping for more. (I don’t know, maybe a tighter script?) and not because the film didn’t live up to Thompson’s book. Did I mention that Depp was great?

Spike Lee’s He Got Game. Never one to shy away from hypocrisy, Lee serves up a double-d dose of it here.

Godard’s For Ever Mozart, Kieslowski’s No End, and Olivera’s Inquietude/Anxiety. Three films from three accomplished directors that never achieve the grace and impact I’ve come to expect from their work.

Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry. I am embarrassed to admit that this is the first Kiarostami film that I have seen. I admired his sincerity, grace, measured pacing, and austere visual style. Despite the heavy symbolism and seemingly quaint response to the protagonist’s cynical (and largely unexplained) world view, the film provides an enigmatic ending that I found both frustrating yet appropriate. Raising issues regarding faith, nationality, occupation, and shared experience, Kiarostami provides few answers and therefore can seem elusive (though I felt my own cultural distance didn’t help much). In other words, Taste of Cherry may have been a richer experience had I been able to engage the film in less abstract terms.

Films I wish I hadn’t seen:

  1. Great Expectations (put your clothes back on Gwen)
  2. X-Files (Mulder, go home)
  3. Lost in Space (indeed)
  4. Rounders (John Malkovich rescues an otherwise shoddy effort)
  5. Happiness (if for no other reason than Solondz’s ironic detachment and unmerciful mean-spiritedness)

Films I wish I hadn’t missed:

  1. The Celebration
  2. Fireworks
  3. The Disenchanted
  4. Nights of Cabiria

Top 5 Repertory:

  1. The Hustler. I have seen bits and pieces of Rossen’s masterpiece over the years, but nothing prepared me for the inspired wide-screen screening I was fortunate enough to see this year; Rossen, with the help of cinematographer Schufftan, manages to turn formulaic plotting and wince-worthy dialogue into something fresh and original (even after all these years).
  2. Touch of Evil. Welles re-cut, re-assembled, re-stored, re-deemed.
  3. Next of Kin. Atom Egoyan’s first feature confirms his long-standing fascination with technology(ies of reproduction), the vicissitudes of identity, and, yes, familial relations. Egoyan’s formalism often masks an underlying warm-heartedness, but here he manages to have his cake and eat it too.
  4. Latcho Drom. Tony Gatlif’s quasi-narrative of gypsy culture’s migrations from South Asia to Eastern and Western Europe told in song, dance, gesture, color, and underlined by a bittersweet sense of preservation and loss. I can’t decide which episode I liked most in this rich tapestry of a movie. Like his more recent release, Gadjo Dilo, one feels transported, alive, and a little guilty for peering so close.
  5. La Chienne. Vintage Renoir. Maybe not his best, but for my money still better than most of what I’ve seen this year, or any year.

Top 5 Films of 1998:

  1. Wind of the Gone. I admit that my choice for the best film of the year is a little unfair, since I saw Wind of the Gone at the Chicago International Film Festival and I don’t know what its release status is. Given the attention that Central Station has received, I’m hopeful that Wind can seduce some of the same (fiscal) courage. The film offers a creative blend of genres and rhythms, (bitter) humor, sentimentality, (at times clunky) philosophy and politics, feigned innocence, a nostalgic love and playful critique of cinema, and a giddy pace that knows when and how to slow down to take in the scenery. It isn’t designed to define an age or national cinema, to change the course of the history of world cinema, or to make a billion. Set on the edge of civilization (or our idea of the edge of civilization), it is much less polished and grandiloquent than my pick for last year’s best, Egoyan’s Sweet Hereafter, but nonetheless equally profound.
  2. Tie: The Eel / Henry Fool. Also set “on the edge of things,” The Eel was an enchanting surprise. Many weeks after seeing it, the film’s gentle humor, moral depth and striking imagery continue to resonate. I hope to see Henry Fool again so I can decide if I am giving it too much credit. From the opening scene and first words, I found it to be one of Hartley’s best. Replete with many of the ingredients we come to expect from his films (including whatsherface), Fool was maybe the best written and most (self-consciously) contradictory film I’ve seen this year — tidy in its untidiness, well-scrubbed and unkempt, grandiose and mundane.
  3. Flowers of Shanghai. Having seen Hsiao-hsien Hou’s Goodbye South, Goodbye, and having emerged from the theater as one of the few who seemed to like it, I was anxious to see what he would make of the secluded world of turn-of-the-century Shanghai “flower houses” in Flowers of Shanghai. Like Goodbye South, Goodbye, the camera lingers over the everyday (if not commonplace) lives of Hou’s characters — this time rich gentlemen and their concubines — and thus creates an absorptive, hypnotic relation between viewer and screen. We get all the trimmings: slack-jawed opium rapture, beautiful, young courtesans, highly codified social practices, and a pervading corruption of both flesh and spirit. Bordering on claustrophobic in its unrelenting restraint, as might be expected, it is what isn’t said or shown as much as what is that makes this film so remarkable.
  4. Un Air de Famille. While I found Klapisch’s When The Cat’s Away instantly charming, after much reflection I feel that his latest effort, Un Air de Famille, edges out as the better film. In each, Klapisch is both ambitious, anxious to comment on what he sees as a breakdown in traditional social and familial relations, and is also quite humble, choosing not to unleash a one-sided treatise, instead offering an equivocal portrait of human frailty, pettiness, and hypocrisy. Unlike Todd Solondz with Happiness, Klapisch launches his criticisms without losing a sense of perspective and, crucially, without relying on the cheap safety of irony. Klapisch’s characters can be and are just as brutal or uncaring (though Solondz ups the ante with a quasi-sympathetic portrait of a pedophile), but they are at the very least afforded the freedom to choose to learn from their mistakes and shortcomings. Solondz purposefully doesn’t offer such forgiveness (maybe this is the stroke of worldly-wise brilliance everyone is so pleased with), instead damning his characters to remain isolated, unfulfilled and laughable. But who is laughing? and why?
  5. Calling the Ghosts. This documentary on the current conflicts in the Balkans is one of those rare films most people will probably never get to see, and for this reason alone is a reminder of just how narrow American (or any) film culture can be (it was originally released in 1996). I sat speechless, as I listened to a group of women reluctantly tell their stories of the grim realities of war and the particular burden it places on women. A sobering experience.

Sighting America

Wim Wenders, Paris, Texas, 1984

Wim Wenders, Paris, Texas, 1984

A train moves across the screen, slowly disappearing into the distant pre-dawn horizon while the sky above gradually shifts from the dark blue-black of night to the ruddy orange glow of the coming day. A scene equally poignant and contrived in its means, it defines a moment of beginning and end, a pause between past and future that lasts forever and not long enough. So ends Terence Davies’s 1995 film The Neon Bible and so began the germ of an idea that finds its current expression in this film series, a look at foreign directors making films in and about America.

Inevitably, viewing The Neon Bible involves observing Davies contend with a massive inventory of preoccupations, icons and themes of Hollywood’s America. His vanishing train, as a site of generic and authorial contestation, embodies a stock image potent enough to represent the “everytrain” of American film and at the same time the idiosyncratic train of Davies’s America. The gap between the two begets much of the lure and impact of the films in this series where the attraction promises a fresh perspective, offering the shock of the familiar and new intertwined. For us, thinking about this attraction raises the following questions: what knowledge does a foreign perspective on America and American culture produce, and, conversely, how do these provisional categories, once uttered, begin to break down under closer scrutiny? What critical and aesthetic distance manifests and in the same breath collapses when someone like Davies turns to an unfamiliar, yet all too available (albeit highly mediated) subject, in this case the American South of the late 30s and early 40s? That is, what stereotypes and pre-conceived notions and images haunt these films? are they adequately re-cast or sufficiently critiqued? should they be?

The Southerner (Renoir, 1945)
The Young One (Bunuel, 1960)
Fury (Lang, 1936)
Last Exit to Brooklyn (Edel, 1989)
Paris, Texas (Wenders, 1984)
The Neon Bible (Davies, 1995)
Sankofa (Gerima, 1993)
…and the earth did not swallow him (Perez, 1995)
Stroszek (Herzog, 1977)
Arizona Dream (Kusturica, 1993)

Due to the clichés that comprise and denote something like “America, the represented,” each director confronts a crisis in meaning that largely stems from the “given-ness” of his subject. As a result, the films become less evident of a recognizable and well-worn surface (including night trains, billboards, the expansive terrain of the West, and urban labyrinths of New York) than of a testament to the unknown if not unfathomable. In short, films like Paris, Texas and Last Exit to Brooklyn perform (and to various degrees, exploit) the shortcomings and insights of their own presumed innocence. Moreover, in the same way that images of trains and vast western spaces are readily transformed into tropes of “America, the knowable,” this innocence is vulnerable to a similar transformation when faced with equally entrenched views on America. Whether these views emerge as a thesis arguing how relations between economic, political and social conditions shaped the New World’s “noble experiment” (de Tocqueville), a fable depicting America as the blessed nation of freedom and opportunity (the Puritanical “city on a hill”), or a muckraking tract decrying the greed and violence inherent in a society based on competitive materialism, they reinforce powerful cultural beliefs, and we are hard-pressed not to feel their influence.

Yet, given that these ideas are at least valid for contestation, it is surprising how strenuously the films avoid co-opting them to any large degree. For example, both The Young One and Last Exit to Brooklyn play with the idea of social criticism (in the areas of race and labor relations respectively), but neither film aspires to be an authoritative indictment or even an exposé. Sankofa offers us a very different social criticism by speaking outside of a fraudulent history of the black experience of America and a conspiring Hollywood that has helped to perpetuate this history. The Southerner and Stroszek delineate an America that is a land of freedom and opportunity, but they are even more interested in the shortcomings and impossibilities inherent in such a dream. And, though their titles suggest some sort of grounding, Arizona Dream and Paris, Texas turn the idea of the well-constructed nation on its head emphasizing the bizarre and distorted features of both the landscape and its inhabitants. In fact, if these ten films ultimately have a common thread, it is the actualization of the absurd, or the prospect of a reality (filmed, or otherwise) overflowing its bounds. The unknown amplified, the known disguised.

– Joe Carey and Jon Wotman 

(originally published by the Documentary Film Group, University of Chicago)

Best Films of 1997

Atom Egoyan, The Sweet Hereafter, 1997

Atom Egoyan, The Sweet Hereafter, 1997

It takes a little time, sometimes, to turn the Titanic around

- Amy Grant

It was a radically uneven year. There were moments of unparalleled beauty and moments of disappointing mediocrity. I started out with a series of my own (shared with Mr. Wotman), which had its own unevenness (evidence of growing pains, I’d like to think), and ended in a classroom watching Hitchcock’s Rear Window. The pressures of presenting a series of films to a paying audience (yes, both at Doc and Rutgers) proved to be as serious as a heartbeat and often exhilarating (Contempt was a hard sell, but worth it). I also felt myself drifting to/from two very different shores: the active, almost obsessive Chicago film culture, and Philadelphia / South(ern New) Jersey’s lackluster — at times self-conscious, at times unapologetic — film scene.

As in the early part of 1996, I found myself immersed in films that you would be hard-pressed to find outside of the classroom: French poetic realism of the 30s, Italian neo-realism of the 1940s-50s, and various achievements of the silent era including Stroheim’s Greed and De Mille’s The Cheat. In the street, I felt a heaviness that I’ve managed to avoid up to this point, the burden of commercialism and the thin taste of obsolescence. Bus posters advertising Starship Troopers, Alien: Resurrection and The Game lacked originality and also, despite of or because of the healthy cash flow, proved just how trite movie-going can be. Critics seemed a bit lost too, sorting through hundreds of films, not sure if they were missing the point or if indeed the tail was wagging the dog. I’ve never felt the vacuity of recycled themes, story-lines, and gestures as much as I have this year. Even the quiet moments in cinema were enveloped by the wake of last year’s “independent” triumph. Films like Ulee’s Gold (which I did not see) might have never made it to the screen or might have held more value in my eyes had they not been sold as the next Sling Blade, or some other fading middle-brow art house success. Of course the mass cultists among us will say that such recycled ballast is what Hollywood does best. Relish the shit, the more the better, perhaps even the more self-aware the better. It’s the end of the century, the millennium. What have we got to lose, let alone to hold on to? In response, I offer the following:

Top 5:

  1. The Sweet Hereafter
  2. Irma Vep
  3. La Ceremonie
  4. Boogie Nights
  5. Ice Storm

The Sweet Hereafter redeemed an otherwise disappointing year. As I watched it, I felt I was witnessing such a finely-wrought film. Elegant and yet not as icy as some of his earlier work, this film could be Egoyan’s best. If Rosenbaum thinks he bit off more than he should here, I am thankful for the ambition. Truly brilliant.

Regarding the other four, Vep still lingers and mutates in my sub-conscious and Ceremonie gets kudos for a great ending. Boogie Nights and Ice Storm both deal with 70s American culture in one way or another, with varying success (even though Boogie Nights strays into the 80s to accommodate the video age). While the symbolism and overt morality of both were hard to endure at times, their inclusion here is at once evidence of sporadically exciting filmmaking and my relatively short list of first-run outings this year.

Like Jon, I don’t know if people will remember these films in years to come (though I am not convinced that Titanic will be remembered for anything other than its budget, and the fact that Hollywood execs are better at steering clear of imminent disaster than their forebears). This troubles me. The vagaries of indelibility have always been part and parcel to pop culture. My decaying Rolling Stone magazines testify: Steven Speilberg winks at the camera, arms wrapped around E.T., and Harrison Ford smirks from beneath a perfectly weathered brow, coiled whip in hand — images surely a part of our collective (American?) consciousness. And then there are the has-beens and better-left-forgottens, the likes of Lucas’s Howard the Duck and Ron Howard’s Willow, films that surely have a reserved space in the “dustbins of history.” But wait; I tilt the camera slightly, and narrative film transforms into a mature art form with a history of achievements such as Citizen Kane, Vertigo, La Strada, etc. — films that surely shape a canon that even Harold Bloom can’t ignore.

In the thick of it, in the heat of the moment, the here and now of choosing which films touched us most deeply, which films opened our eyes widest, should we keep this history in mind? Should the longevity of our choices concern us? or should we resist such an impulse? Historically speaking, movie-going has mostly been an ephemeral experience, a fleeting impression that never quite satisfies. Today, given the archive of video tape and various digital technologies, the week’s offerings return to us again and again, in different forms, and at different prices. We witness a movie’s gradual, well-orchestrated devaluation from today’s must-see to tomorrow’s clearance special at Target. I am reminded of the torn corners of those bus posters (and the posters in Contempt), and again I am forced to choose between reveling in this transience or to try to hold on to something more lasting.

Best First Reel: Lost Highway

I recently watched a show on Bravo, The Actor’s Studio, where Mike Nichols claimed that the most crucial part of a film is its opening sequence. As a Twizzler-chomping movie-goer I’d have to agree and admit that the first minutes of a film are often the most defining. The obvious: it sets the tone, sets up expectations, and the like. We settle in, sometimes wait for the credits to get on with it, and then we are either hooked or already frowning. What are some films with great openings? Fargo? Contempt? Touch of Evil? In retrospect, are they great because they are preludes, the beginning of a greater work of art? or do they manage to stand on their own?

Best Summer Flic: My Best Friend’s Wedding

My indulgence. The summer began in Chicago for me. Then, in Philadelphia, something broke. I wound up avoiding/missing most of the blockbusters (didn’t see MIB or Lost World). I saw Chasing Amy (late?). Went to see Contact with high expectations, which were quickly dashed. Meanwhile, I watched the undying undulations of the ever-saucy Mae West and the stiff Marlene Dietrich (in class). The hot but not too hot days bled into weeks. Maybe I remembered Wedding because of all the Chicago locales. In a certain sense, it felt like this year’s Flirting with Disaster: a riot, great ensemble sequences, and cell phones attached to pretty faces.

Best Repertory: Ugetsu

My first taste of this inspired director. Like many films that I find especially moving, Ugetsu had a graceful rhythm and delicate pace. A cinema of gestures, Mizoguchi’s style is such that he begs to be deciphered but does so with little more than a nudge.

Most Over-rated: L.A. Confidential / Cop Land

A dead-heat tie here. Even with Spacey’s screen presence, Confidential was just too referential, even for this tired old post-modern apologist. Every line felt delivered and every shot felt like a part of a how-to noir manual. Cop Land was yet another waste of an incredible cast; but then, aren’t all incredible casts wasted? Beyond that, Cop Land had a promising beginning but then quickly deteriorated into a run-of-the-mill ho-hummer. Machismo moves to Jersey.

Best Films of 1996

Jacques Rivette, Haut Bas Fragile, 1995

Jacques Rivette, Haut Bas Fragile, 1995

I can recall seeing just over 50 films for the year, including videos and first-time screen viewings that I’ve already caught on video. Of these 50+, maybe 25 are first-run releases. That’s not much to come up with a year-end top 10, so I’ve opted for a few 5s.

Top 5 of 1996:

  1. Haut Bas Fragile
  2. English Patient
  3. Dead Man
  4. Convent
  5. Big Night

Top 5 of any year (that I saw for the first time and on screen):

  1. Opening Night (the unsurpassable Cassavetes)
  2. Tokyo Story (Ozu)
  3. Satin Slipper (Oliveira)
  4. Short Film About Killing (Kieslowski)
  5. Une Femme est Une Femme (Godard) (saw it on video last year but the ‘scope print at the Film Center was a completely different experience)

Top 5 that I wanted to include but which ultimately fell short to varying degrees:

  1. The Second Time/Land and Freedom (tie)
  2. 12 Monkeys
  3. Neon Bible
  4. Hamlet
  5. Get on the Bus

Top 5 films that I wish I had missed:

  1. Stealing Beauty
  2. Basquiat
  3. Trainspotting
  4. Courage Under Fire
  5. Star Trek: First Contact

Top 5 films that I’m glad I missed (managed to avoid/walk out on):

  1. ID4/Twister (tie)
  2. Space Jam
  3. Ransom
  4. Striptease
  5. Nutty Professor

Honorable mentions go to Gold Diggers of 1933, the first film I ever projected, and Maya Deren’s Meshes in the Afternoon, the re-discovery of the year. I saw Meshes years ago, remembered it visually but not by title or filmmaker, and was surprised to see it again in Cobb Hall last winter.

The jury is still out on Flirt, Calendar and Goodbye South, Goodbye. Also, biggest mistake of the year has to be deciding to go see Almodovar’s Flower of my Secret instead of Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Finally, to include video, I have to give a nod to Davies’ Distant Voices, Still Lives as the best of Thursday Nights at Jon’s Place and I must mention Bleu, Blanc, and Rouge, films that seem to thin and yet grow more complex each time I sit down with them.

Best wishes for ‘97. Highlights already within view: Spring quarter at DOC should be full of missed opportunities like Waves and Secrets (for me) and hopefully the Egoyan series; Suburbia and Crash cometh; the series; Hitch and the French New Wave at the Box and Film Center respectively. And who knows what Hollywood releases are bound to capture our imagination. Evita?

Open Letter

Louise Brooks

Immortality, or What is the Meaning of Life.

Outside Temp: -58 C., Over Chicago heading towards Kansas City, 2750 km / 1707 m, Time: 3:35 PM PST, Altitude: 10,700 m / 35000 ft., Land Speed: 744 km/hr / 493 mph

Date: 11 March 1994

Dear Reader,

Our airlines have grown quite sophisticated. In between the usual “entertainment” programming, the screen before me (actually over several rows of heads) provides a well-documented, detailed assessment of my current position in the time-space continuum we lovingly call the Universe. I look on a white symbol of an aircraft floating just west of what I have come to recognize as a graphical representation of Lake Michigan. Different views shuffle by on rotation; progress is marked by distance to the next ATC region (I suspect) marked by “O” while our final destination, in this case San Francisco, is marked by a dot surrounded by a diamond figure. Next flyby, or flyover, Iowa City. Funny, I seem to recall driving this area last June while crossing the States heading east. How much further can this go? Perhaps cameras mounted on our wings giving us a live “feed” of the journey “in progress.”

(6:00 local time)

Reader, can you tell that I am fascinated by this? A technological extravagance perhaps but also enthralling and frightening in an existential sort of way.

My sometimes flight attendant just sauntered by. Actually, she is too tense and thin to saunter. Rather, she stepped, or skipped by, like a sprite. Yet, her dark eyes seem so very bored. I wonder what lies behind. . . and how might those eyebrows arch? Her appearance reminds me of Louise Brooks: very short black hair, clever ears, close to her head, and an angular jaw accented by sharp tendrils of hair. But her voice betrays a less than inspired spirit. Perhaps it is the circumstance. As Paul Westerberg reminds us, “She aint nothin’ but a waitress in the sky. . .  ah ah uh. . .” Her utterances are flat, monotone, too nasal maybe. All of her features point to her full mouth, only to emit such disappointment.

Ah, but I digress and I am heavy with an abundance of unfair judgment. What if roles were reversed? One can only guess. . . (editorial note: Mrs. Doubtfire has begun and a wide body has bumped into my shoulder, struggling down the all too narrow aisle). Getting back to me-as-object-of-perception, I find it disturbing for someone to judge based simply on appearance. Yet, are we not guilty of this all too often? We learn to temper and adjust our first impressions but despite our efforts they continue to influence our thinking (Sally Field actually looks decent in this movie, although I’m beginning to feel a little disoriented without my reassuring altitude and graphical progress registers. . .)

So where was I? A hard question to answer. Here I sit, still yet moving (very fast I expect) wondering what you are doing there. Across the page, on the other side, you sit reading these words, and I hope coming to some understanding of them. I don’t doubt that you have come to wonder if these meanderings will in fact lead anywhere. Frankly, no guarantee can be offered at this point (which is probably just beginning to peek at the majestic profile of the Rocky Mountains). My hand tires and my bladder swells. A rest is in order. Perhaps you should take in a stray thought or two, nothing too serious. Are you thirsty? Have a drink. If you know where I am right now, call me or perhaps write a quick note.

Definitely sprite-like, and more content than I initially thought. Perhaps her stoic look is a guise. My opinion grows, still without opening one question to her, save: “What kind of enchilada?” and “Do you have mineral water?”

So, how was the respite reader? I hope you took my advice and left these words for a while. While I waited for the vacant light to go on, I spied out a small portal. The sun sets and a sea of clouds race beneath our wings. I was reminded of Wordsworth’s view atop Mount. . . what was the name of that mountain in his “Prelude”? As I looked on the graying skyscape I thought of you, though I do not yet know your name.

Please don’t take offense. I’ve addressed letters in the past without knowing their content and in this case I want the destination to surface along with the words and thoughts. You see, interestingly enough, you know more at this point than I do (I take it back, Sally Field is looking a little ragged. . . if only I could hear her voice, a $4.00 privilege). So then, who will have the endurance, the inclination to read further? While most letters carry a tone and structure suited for their intended readers, here such form is undetermined, even undermined. Of course, I do have a couple of ideas.

But let’s get to the point.

As I stretch my neck, feeling that “I’ve been sitting in/on an airplane too long” discomfort, I muse on the not so light-hearted notion of immortality or perhaps less precisely, the meaning of life. Spurred by his book, Language, Thought, and Action, I contemplate Hayakawa’s thoughts on the fundamental use of the verbal world (language) — to learn and cope (often unwittingly) through cooperation with the “life process” that surrounds and infuses us. By using experience and lessons learned by previous generations, we are able to minimize and to some extent eliminate unnecessary repetition. For example, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Instead, we are given moments adding to a lifetime to build upon these past accomplishments and, moreover, to grow as an individual amid many roles: human, woman/man, citizen, politician, son/daughter, lover, sister/brother, Jew, W.A.S.P., Christian, American, bastard, student, teacher, adult, child, working-class, middle-class, upper-class, high-ranking corporate executive or perhaps thin-wristed flight-attendant. The labels proliferate, biased of course, and hopelessly misleading and inaccurate. Whatever the distinction, classification or stereo-type, we move through it, eluding an accurate portrait. Of course, the term growth implies progress but let’s not forget ourselves, this is not always the case. Nonetheless, we are propelled into life and the immediate question arises: What do we do with this… this… meaningful process, fragile balance, gift from God, random circumstance, or (perhaps the most disconcerting possibility of all) null set? How are we to spend it? Endure it? Relish it? Pacify it? Succumb to it, our eyes wide with a look of bewilderment on our flushed faces?

How, reader? When you walk down a street on the hard, stained cement, do your bones glide in stride — a testament to “human grace” — or do they start and stop, uncomfortable with the sinews stretched and sewn in place, awkwardly mastering the instinctual yet all the more exhausting posture that you have inherited? Don’t get me wrong. As I let a draught of refreshing water pass over my thirst, I sense, I feel, I know those poetic steps. But for how long?

Decisions, choices, compromises, sacrifices, seem inevitable. Or should we defiantly throw up our arms and declare the pointlessness of it all? End of story. Of course, that is a choice in itself. The illusory seduction of immortality lies in its promise of the elimination of such concerns. Given life eternal, one turns every stone possible, and then another. Life without end — what an equally enthralling, impossible, and horrific concept.

Well, I’ve managed to back myself into an awkward corner. Trials lie ahead. I sense them gathering. Yet, there is no way of knowing to what degree they will matter, to know what consequences will surely follow. Many, many words later where do we find ourselves? Any better off? No less confused surely. Yet, in some innate way, I’ll feel more prepared facing the next turn knowing that you have read these words, these translated, bumpy thoughts. As fleeting, temporary and fuzzy as these utterances have been, they remain still.