Sunday, December 10, 2006

The toppermost of the poppermost

Its early, I know. There are still a few films to limp into cinemas this year. I'll probably see Perfume and Deja Vu, but only Flags of Our Fathers and Happy Feet look like they have any real pedigree. By which I mean directors I know and trust to some extent. So, if either of those stun me I'll amend this list. But I doubt they will.

A note : these are all films that received a UK cinema release for the first time in 2006. If I had included revivals then Jean-Pierre Melvilles L'Armee des Ombres and Michaelangelo Antonioni's The Passenger would both be in the top 5.

1. The New World
Terrence Malick makes absolutely unique films. Beautiful, rhapsodic tone-poems about nature and innocence and society, always with a philosophical basis. That makes them sound terribly boring, and some people think them so, but Malick is technically a great film-maker, and his skill with the medium instead makes his films strangely gripping. His style is much imitated (by the likes of David Gordon Green, for whom Malick produced Undertow), but nobody can really replicate it. The New World is generally shot on handheld camera, and that camera - as in all of Malick's films - will often seemingly aimlessly glide away from the action to observe a bird or the wind in the grass. Indeed, the first noise on the soundtrack is birdsong. Malick wants to immerse us into this time and place, and he lets it seep into the audience - sound first, then vision. He is as great a builder of worlds as Kubrick or Ridley Scott, and it seems as if he creates these worlds three-dimensionally so that he can then capture the moments inbetween the more obvious dramatic beats.
That is why The New World features a couple of ferocious battles between a Native American tribe and the English Settlers, but why it gazes far longer upon the awakening of John Smith (Colin Farrell) to the beauty of the harmonious lifestyle of the tribe who have captured him while he also falls in love with Pocahontas (Q'Orianka Kilcher). That the film then becomes the story of Pocahontas' spiritual and emotional journey is key to Malick's trust in theme and meaning over narrative. Kilcher is amazing, luminous and magnetic, with Farrell and Christian Bale offering two distinctly different versions of a leading man performance over the course of the film, Farrell a brute unable to cope with the feelings the girl and her world stir in him, Bale a more sensitive and mature man who watches and helps her become a woman and mother.
It is difficult to overstate just how beautiful this film is. Emmanuel Luzbeki is one of the worlds leading cinematographers and he and Malick shot the entire film without the aid of artificial lighting. Malick has always been obsessed with natural light - Days of Heaven was shot almost entirely at twilight, or Magic Hour, and is resultingly perhaps the single most beautiful film ever made, and Nick Nolte has spoken of the lengths to which Malick was willing to go on The Thin Red Line to only shoot late in the evening in a specific kind of golden light* - and here that obsession combined with an always subjective, always mobile camera conjures up a vivid and alien world. The opening passage, wherein the Native tribe rush along the edge of the forest to see the English ships arriving in the bay and we feel a sense of their mutual excitement and fear, all cut to the rising swell of Wagner's Rheingold, is perhaps the single best moment of cinema I saw all year.

2. Miami Vice
In many ways, Miami Vice is the ultimate Michael Mann film. Here he perfects the digital photography he experimented with in Ali and Collateral. Here he remakes some of his earlier work (the plot is based upon a couple of separate episodes of the Original series, but elements of it were also used in his Robbery Homicide Division series from a few years ago). Here he revisits some of his recurring themes - men defined by what they do, the impossibility of true human connection in the modern world, the relativity of good and evil in terms of law and order...Here he also returns to his favourite visual motifs, such as man pensive in a wash of blue by the ocean and the harsh beauty of the modern American city by night.
Mann has dealt with this world so often that now he is merely refining his ideas and sharpening his details. There is the sense in Miami Vice of an artist working almost in shorthand. Dialogue and exposition are minimal, spoken realistically and offhandedly. Cliched situations are elevated by the intensity of the writing, direction and playing - the undercover cop falling in love with one of his targets, a shootout in a shipyard. The details are always telling and the soul of the film is in the tiniest moments. In a stylistic choice evoking Malick, Mann's camera occasionally drifts away from the obvious focus of a scene to dwell on something else entirely - Crockett gazing out a window at the ocean while his squad turn the screw on an underworld contact, or the feet of children racing past a car-wheel on the street outside a Havana Bar.
Mann is possibly the finest stylist working in modern cinema, and he puts sequences together better than anybody else. His camera moves so elegantly and unostentatiously and some of his compositions are extremely daring - he will often begin a scene with an abstraction rather than an establishing shot and loves to fill the foreground of a shot with the dark block of a shoulder. He is obsessed with surface - buildings, clothes, cars, weaponry - because he understands that in the modern world, surface often is substance, appearance is all. His action scenes are unparalleled, realistic, coherent and thrillingly visceral.
Aside from the thematic and stylistic aspects, Miami Vice is his first film since The Last of the Mohicans to focus on a love story, and as such, its his most emotional film in some time. His decision to pull away from the procedural elements of his narrative and devote a large chunk of the film to the doomed romance between two characters is a bravura one, and it pays divedends at the climax, which has a hefty and adult sense of loss and pain.
And, oh yeah, he shoots skies like nobody else :

3. Children Of Men
Emmanual Luzbeki went straight from working on The New World with Malick to working on Children of Men with his old friend and countryman, Alfonso Cuaron. Again, this film was shot without any artificial lighting, and it captures the specific steely grey light of a Northern European autumn as well as any film I have ever seen. Its also probably the most moving of any of these films, possibly because it deals with explicitly contemporary, topical issues, but also because the emotional journey of its protagonist, Theo Faron (Clive Owen) is from despair masked by cynicism to absolute ardent hope and belief in a cause of sorts.
The future dystopia portrayed by the film is a thinly veiled comment on the world of today - a world ruled by fear of immigration and asylum seekers, fear of terrorism and crime, and fear of disease both animal and human. Its proximity to our world makes the small changes, which are always in the background, and never really lingered upon, all the more jarring and convincing. This is a future that looks like now and feels like now, only - in the tiniest details - it doesn't. In this world, there are rickshaws on London streets, holograms on buses and buildings, and euthanasia kits for sale. The odd surreal piece of imagery - for instance, the giant inflatable pig outside Battersea Power station, just like on the cover of Pink Floyd's Animals - just makes the rest seem more mundane and believable. The plot, once it kicks in, is a chase thriller, as a series of characters pursue Faron and Kee, a refugee who is miraculously pregnant in a world where the last child was born nearly 20 years before, as they try to get out of a Britain which has become a fortress.
Cuaron and Luzbeki shoot the majority of the film in a series of long steadicam, dolly and tracking shots, including a magnificent battle scene in a refugee camp at the climax, and a brilliant and shocking attack on a car in a Forest. Owen is the best hes ever been. Human and fallible, but always heroic. The rest of the cast is perfect, particularly Michael Caine as Faron's old cartoonist friend, and comic relief, Jasper. The film also has a great soundtrack, featuring both Classical pieces by John Taverner and a series of truly eclectic pop and rock songs by the likes of King Crimson, Roots Manuva, Aphex Twin, the Kills and John Lennon.
All of the best dystopian stories are British - 1984, Brave New World, a Clockwork Orange, Brazil - and Children of Men is worthy of inclusion on such a list.

4. United 93
What a brave, unsentimental, clear-eyed and gripping piece of work this film is. And what a great director Paul Greengrass is becoming. His documentary-style shooting gives every second a "you-are-there" immediacy which in this instance is decidedly sickening. You don't want to be there. The tension -from the very first moments of the film, a serene aerial shot of New York streets at night, oblivious to the threat from the sky - is awful and never really lets up. The first 20 minutes, when the passengers board the flight, are so mundane and casual, yet so loaded with our knowledge of where this story must take us that it is utterly riveting. You cannot deny what is going to happen, you cannot comfort yourself with the fact that it is fiction. The actors, including many of the Air Traffic controllers playing themselves, are flawless, and there is never a false note.
There is no sympathy extended to the hijackers, and yet there is an even-handed acknowledgement that they were human beings too, and that they were frightened and nervous. None of the passengers is made too heroic - rather they act as real people might, arguing their way to an agreement, terrified and yet determined.
I left the cinema after seeing this film with a headache and a pain in my stomach. I say that as a recommendation. It isn't depressing, rather it is strangely exhilarating - the defiance and struggle of the passengers on Flight 93 seems reassuringly, vitally human, and that is hopeful in its way. They die fighting for their lives, these first citizens of the post-9/11 world, and this film makes that seem an important example of the rest of us.
That it does so with such emotional power and respect for the reality of the event it depicts is tribute to Greengrass' skill as a director and sureness of touch. As much as any film-maker working today, he makes films about the way we live now, the world that we live in, and what it does to us. Even a classy piece of pulp like The Bourne Supremacy is transformed by his sensibility until it seems somehow relevant in its portrayal of a modern, digital world, shrunken by travel and technology, where Americans are touched by Russian politics in Goa and Berlin. In United 93, as in Bloody Sunday, it is obvious that Greengrass is perfectly at home dealing with real events, indeed, is inspired by such a challenge.
I can't even really imagine what he would have done to Watchmen, to which he was attached for a while...

5. The Squid & the Whale
Noah Baumbach is a sometime collaborator of Wes Anderson (they wrote "the Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou" together) and one of the curiosities of this lovely little family-comedy is how it deals with some of the same issues Anderson handled so differently in The Royal Tenenbaums. Baumbach is far more of a realist than Anderson, and his characters are more consistently human and credible than Anderson's quirky, often two-dimensional creations have been (in his last two films, at least). His visual style is casual, handheld and verite where Anderson's is visually overloaded, every frame filled to its edges with information and design of one type or another.
The comedy in The Squid & the Whale is often painful because it grows out of these real characters and is observed flatly and unjudgementally by Baumbach's camera. Jeff Daniels is fantastic and utterly without vanity as Bernard, the father of two young boys in 80s Brooklyn - based on Baumbach and his brother - who are struggling to cope with their parent's separation. Bernard is a recognisable, everyday monster, insecure and petty, unable to function properly as a father due to his own failures as a writer. The sadness in the film, beyond the low-key sadnesses of the elder of the two boys (Walt, played by Jesse Eisenberg) and his early and precisely captured fumblings with a girlfriend, come from Bernard's inability to change or even realise that there is any need to change. The final scene between Walt - who is finally seeing his father's flaws and beginning to value the bond he once shared with his mother - and Bernard, is a sort of encapsulation of how the film works emotionally. Bernard is a little more vulnerable than usual, caught reading Elmore Leonard in a hospital bed. Walt is willing to give his father a chance, but Bernard, even now, cannot change. His personality prevents it, and Walt instead turns to his mother and a memory of childhood with her.
Baumbach can write a great comic exchange - his directorial debut, Kicking & Screaming, is full of them- and he evokes the 1980s subtly and deftly. What is most impressive, apart from the uniformly excellent acting, is how well Baumbach mixes comedy and drama. This story is full of sadness and regret, but this film is wonderfully funny. The way Walt is starting to resemble Bernard with his lofty pronouncements on culture is perfectly captured, and their rivalry for the affections of Lili (Anna Paquin) is well-drawn. The psychological effect of the separation upon Frank (Owen Cline), the younger of the boys, is sensitively traced, but probably best summed up in one line he spits at his father : "Suck my dick, ass-man".

6. Three Times
Three love stories set in three different historical periods with the same two actors playing the lovers in each segment. Except nothing much happens. Its not even really clear if anybody ever really loves anybody else, not in the way it would be made clear in most forms of narrative cinema, at least. But then Taiwanese director Hsiao-Hsien Hou is not like any other director.
Three Times is his most accessible, commercial film, starring as it does two Asian stars in Chen Chang and Qi Shu.
But it is a commercial film that deals with the minutae of the behaviour of people in love and how culture, politics and society affects that, and indeed all interpersonal relations. A film about disconnection and failed communication and the toll that it can take. A film that plays with the cinematic conventions of romance, and relies mainly on a kind of quiet poetry for its beauty and charm.
The first story, set in 1966 and scored to "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes" and Demis Roussous' "Rain & Tears" follows the shy semi-courtship of a soldier on leave and a poolhall girl. He writes her a letter. She moves to another job. He searches for her. They eat together. His leave ends and he has to go. This is perhaps the most romantic and the most plot-heavy of the three segments, and the second segment, set in 1911, is perhaps the saddest and most beautiful. During the Japanese occupation, a patriotic Taiwanese diplomat visits a courtesan and they seem to develop strong feelings for one another. However he cannot afford to buy her for himself and she cannot afford to leave her profession. The third story, set in 2005, follows a bisexual rock star and her affair with a photographer.
Hou plays the three stories off one another for thematic reasons, contrasting the varying degrees of social, political and sexual freedom in each of the eras depicted. The first story is shot in an evocatively nostalgic golden light and scored by vintage pop, and is the warmest of the three. The second replaces pop music with a traditional song played by the Courtesan, and is entirely without dialogue, inter-title cards relaying the characters words to the audience. This segment is also set entirely in a couple of small rooms, lending every motion and facial expression of its two main characters an unusual and shattering weight. The third story is stylistically more modern, capturing Taipei's chaos, the industrial world at its starkest and the hollowness modern life and freedoms can lead to. Here the music is a song the girl performs at one of her gigs, and the city is a dark and confusing warren, the plot a drifting absence.
The cumulative effect of the three stories is moving and fascinating, and thought-provoking in that it demands you reconsider every aspect of the film and the ideas it examines. Aside from that, its a beautiful film.

7. Borat
What is there to say about Borat that hasn't already been said by a thousand people?
Its incredibly funny. I think I laughed more than I ever have at any film I have ever seen before. I was laughing to varying degrees more or less from start to finish. Giggling, then guffawing, snorting, whimpering, chewing on my fist, doing a throaty chortle I do when I'm trying not to laugh too hard, then guffawing again, braying occasionally. My face began to hurt halfway through from the unfamiliar sensation of making a laugh-face for too long.
And it was serious, obviously, in Cohen's satirical intentions and skewering of American society.
But forget that, for possibly the funniest moment is the naked fight scene, the basest, crudest joke in the entire film ("My moustache still tastes of your testes."). Or maybe its the scene where Borat patronises the gypsy at the yard-sale ("Gypsy, give me your tears. If you do not give them to me, I will take them from you."). Or perhaps the scene where Borat flings dollars at cockroaches believing them to be shape-shifting Jews.
I could go on forever listing contenders for funniest moment ("Get out of my face or I'll break your fucking jaw").
Did I mention its funny?

8. Zidane : A 21st Century Portrait
Obviously, I love football. Would I recommend this film to somebody who doesn't like - or maybe even hates - football? Well, yes I would. Because its a simply stunning piece of cinema. Shot by 16 separate cameras in real time over the course of a single match (Real Madrid vs Villareal, April 23rd 2005), all following Zinedine Zidane, probably the greatest player of his generation, this is as much art installation as film. But it is very definitely a film. Director of Photography Darius Khondji has worked with the likes of David Fincher and Jean-Pierre Juenet in the past, and his work is generally visually opulent. That is also the case here, where Zidane is generally shot against the black of the night, sweat gleaming under floodlights, or in motion against the blur of the crowd.
At half-time we take a break from Zizou and the film turns its gaze outwards to consider other events that occurred on that day, including the note that the directors son had a fever in the morning. This almost cosmic dimension is strikingly in keeping with the quotations from Zidane himself which scroll across the screen during the match, his reflections on how he feels when he plays, how he remembers it, what it means to him.
Mainly, he waits. Strolling, jogging, ocassionally sprinting, he maintains space around himself, and waits for the ball. Most of his touches are incredibly brief - a single touch and he has ferried the ball on to a teammate. He is fouled, he jostles for the ball. He calls for it, he points and gestures. The faces of other celebrated players move into his orbit and across the screen - Riquelme, Beckham, Roberto Carlos. In a decisive moment he recieves the ball, dribbles a little, casually steps over it and, having shaken his marker with that single instant of magic, crosses for Ronaldo to score an equalising goal. Eventually he loses his temper - unaccountably - launches himself at another player and is sent off.
If the single most important aspect of football is the appreciation and utilisation of space, then Zidane manages to become a film which is not about football by ignoring this. Zidane's actions on the pitch are decontextualised because we never really know where he is on the field in relation to the ball, or what is happening elsewhere. The camera never leaves him, generally trained to his impassive face. When Villareal take the lead in the match, we are somewhat obliquely shown this via a shot of a camera monitor. At one point, Zidane chats to Roberto Carlos and breaks out in a huge grin, and so hypnotic is the film that this moment feels almost like an action scene.
Zidane also features a great soundtrack by Mogwai and some brilliant sound design. The opening of the film pulls slowly away from the pixels of a monitor showing the game, the sound a mix of electronic burble and some muted Spanish commentary. Suddenly we cut to Zidane on the pitch and the roar of 70,000 supporters in the Bernabeau. Its an awesome, spine-tingling moment, whether you like football or not.

9. Little Children
Its always awkward when a novel you love is adapted into a film. But writer Tom Perrotta worked on the screenplay for Little Children with director Todd Field, and so you would imagine that the film would be true to his vision and sensibility. But somehow it isn't. His book is warmer and funnier than Field's chilly, ironic film. Does this suggest that Field has his own, surprisingly strong voice as a director? The tone here is reminiscent of that in his debut, In the Bedroom. Except here he is obviously more confident, not afraid to veer his story off on long tangents as his narrator describes the interior lives of supporting characters. Stylistically, too , he is braver, his film full of arresting compositions and extended tracking shots.
The setting and subject are familiar from many American films - suburbia and its dark side. A recently released sex offender returns to live with his mother in the same neighbourhood where two bored and frustrated stay-at-home parents begin a passionate affair. From this, a strangely epic but intimate study of character and society is fashioned.
Field is more careful and precise than other directors have been with similar material. He is obviously a big disciple of Stanley Kubrick (for whom he acted in Eyes wide Shut), and his style and voice owe a great deal to Kubrick's mature mode. The cold eye cast upon all of his characters is entirely Kubrickian, and means that the comedy of the novel is squeezed into an altogether darker, more tragic place.
Kate Winslet and Patrick Wilson play the lovers, and both give great performances, Winslet perhaps better than she has ever been before. Their work means that the characters have a depth uncommon even in the most serious of contemporary cinematic drama - they are three-dimensional, not always likeable, but always believable. Both characters are immature - the title refers to more than just their actual offspring. The love story element then becomes moving, and is matched by the darker story of the sex-offender and his mother.
Field has become, in the space of two films, an interesting and distinctive voice in american cinema and it will be fascinating to see where his career goes from here. The earnestness of both his films suggests he could become a Richard Brooks figure, always searching for the next "important" book to adapt, but there is an intelligance and craft in those films that promises he is capable of much more.

10. A Bittersweet Life
I love action films. Of course I do. It was the genre I first really loved, and when I say that I mean the really bad stuff- Steven Seagal, Van Damme, Chuck Norris, utter crap - as well as the good. A good action film can still rock me to this day, delivering a jolt of adrenaline no other genre can match, no matter how well-crafted or intelligent or beautiful. So this last place was up for grabs between a handful of action films I loved this year - Casino Royale, Crank and District 13 among them - but the one that has stayed with me the longest is A Bittersweet Life, Kim Ji-woon's delirious gangster revenge thriller. I loved Old Boy, loved Sympathy For Mr Vengeance even more, liked The Host quite a bit. Korea seems to be where the best pure genre cinema emanates from at the moment, with directors making stylish, exciting films with an unmistakeably Korean identity already established.
A Bittersweet Life is visually wonderful and its action scenes are brilliantly excessive and taut, its plot simple and direct. But it features the usual Korean mix & match style, where gory thriller become zany comedy becomes love story becomes requiem for lone hero with a code. The Koreans just don't recognise the rules of genre cinema the way we are used to, which makes their films gripping and always exciting.
Lee Byung-Hun is an iconic leading man, recalling a Melville hero in his crisp suit in the films first act, which leads his descent to shambling bloody wreck more pathos than the character perhaps deserves. The films ambiguous ending serves to intriguingly question the reality of all we have seen before, and also beautifully frames the heroes loneliness and internal conflict. This is a playful film, despite its ferocity, playful in its approach to genre, its often slapstick humour juxtaposed with horrible violence, its solemn opening voice-over relaying a "grasshopper" style parable we may struggle to find relevance in.
But really, I loved it for its high style and its fight scenes, especially the endless battle royale between the hero and his intended executioners.

Other notables that almost made this list : The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, Munich, Brokeback Mountain, Requiem, Junebug, Crank, The Host, Keane, A Cock and Bull Story, Grizzly Man, Red Road, District 13, Syriana, Jarhead, The Inside Man, Casino Royale and Harsh Times.

*''So I watched Terry. He would start shooting the scene, but watch the sky. And about six, when the sky was just right, he'd say "That's enough of this scene, let's revisit the scene we shot the other day. Nothing will match, but that's fine " He was finishing the scenes in golden light. He couldn't tell the studio he was only going to shoot in golden light, they would have freaked, so he would hold these scenes off. The actor didn't get to do what he wanted to do, John Toll didn't get to photograph it the way he wanted to, and Terry didn't get to shoot it as he'd written it. All those elements were thrown out, and the only new element was this light that's what it was about.'' Nolte to Time Out, Jan 19 2003

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Blogger jamesinbrasil said...

first, a confession. i haven't seen any of these films. secondly, i haven't seen on your reserve list. now i have destroyed all my credibility, i will also say that haven't read your blog because i have a real aversion to reading anything beyond the bare minimum about a film, prior to viewing.

but the very brief scan i did of this piece made me realise i have missed out. films by the director of old boy, co writer of life aquatic, and how could i have missed the new world? (because i was either saving for, or living in, brazil, thats why) so now i have to track these films down, which isn't going to be too easy here, but i will try. i'll leave a comment on next years top ten telling you what i think.

although, i did see little miss sunshine last week and i thought it was tremendous...

2:15 am  
Blogger daveysomethingfunny said...

Good list. I have written my own, thankfully before I read yours, but by strange coincidence we have one film in common in the same spot.

By shamefull admission I haven't seen most of your list. I have a top ten albums list also, it was easier to put together.

I work on the wrong floor.

3:24 am  
Blogger Ross said...

I've seen all of these except Zidane, Syriana and New World. Syriana is waiting to be watched, I'll get New World as soon as I see it cheap and Zidane is about a footballer.

I still don't agree with Three Times, but many fine films on that list.

4:19 pm  
Blogger beezer said...

I was gonna say the only film on your list I saw was your (and my) number one but I did see Borat and it was good.
I had another "hardly went to the cinema" year. Mainly because I'm not working in town (only two cinemas within 5 minutes of work) but what it actually feels like is that there's no one to go with. By the time I notice that a film is about to come out everyone I know has allready downloaded it off bittorrent or recieved it in a pub from a silent Chinese man.
I like spending 12 pounds and seeing films in Liecester Sq but it's hard to find the company.

"Goodnight and Good luck" was this year right? that was good. I liked that a lot on account of how I like the news a lot.

I badly want to see that film by the Oldboy dude. If I did have a top 10 films of the year list it would have Cars in it and the non-fantasy bits of Pan's labyrinth.... see thats not a top 10 at all.

1:36 am  

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