Not Coming to a Theater Near You | 2006 in review

by Ian Johnston

I’m generally suspicious about drawing any big thematic links between my favourite films of the year as I tend to think I lot of this is pretty fortuitous. But I am conscious of the near total absence of American cinema from any list of the films that meant the most to me this year. Even the cinephile’s favourite, Scorsese’s wished-for “return” with The Departed, has lost a lot of its impact in only a couple of months. The reality is that Scorsese is no longer central to my own experience of film culture in the way that he once was, and perhaps that’s endemic of the position of American cinema too. (And don’t even get started on the unindependent American indies… But allow me a little plug here for Noah Baumbach’s excellent The Squid and the Whale.)

What I now offer here are my four viewing highlights for 2006:

Moments choisis des histoire(s) du cinéma
Jean-Luc Godard, 2004

In a sense it’s rather ironic that this has ended up as my favourite film of 2006. Two years old, an 84-minute distillation of the 8-part, 264-minute video Histoire(s) du cinéma of 1998 (although that work was started in the eighties), it’s a true Godardian paradox that this melancholic, mournful elegy on a cinema whose time has now passed should offer the most thrilling, inspiring film viewing that I experienced all year. At 76 years of age, and with three stunning contributions to cinema’s second century in Éloge de l’amour, Notre musique, and Moments choisis…, Godard is far and away the most vital filmmaker alive today.

Syndromes and a Century ( Sang sattawat )
Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2006

For me the best of the genuinely “2006” new releases that I’ve seen this year, and right now, after a single film festival viewing, I’m inclined to call it Weerasethakul’s best. As always, there’s a fine balance between a documentary impulse, the sense of catching scenes on the fly, unmediated by any attempt to fictionalise, to make part of an ordered narrative, and a controlled formalism, where the most simply composed shot becomes – simply through being absolutely right in its duration, lighting, placement of the actors within the frame, and so forth – one of mesmerising, enthralling beauty. This is a film of calm intensity, which succeeds in capturing life’s randomness, intangibility, and mysterious beauty.

Lucile Hadzihalilovic, 2004

I’ve written at length elsewhere on Innocence. Suffice to say this is one of the most perfectly realised films of recent years, one that uses all the resources of cinema – sound, colour, lighting, camera placement and movement – to create its own mysterious and disturbing world. It may be that we catch on a bit too easily as to the meaning of the film’s setting, a secluded boarding school for pre-pubescent girls, and to the way it offers a symbolic representation of the social construction of the female in terms of sexuality, but it’s still never quite as clear-cut as it may appear. In any case, the intensity of the film’s vision, its commitment to its own unique world is compelling.

Sir Arne’s Treasure ( Herr Arnes pengar )
Mauritz Stiller, 1919

As with any year, DVD has provided the means of catching up with films that for one reason or another I’ve missed out on in the past. In 2006 I’ve had first-time viewings of such exceptional films as Barbara Loden’s Wanda (1971; Parlour Pictures) and Max Ophuls’ Madame de… (1953; Second Sight), both masterpieces; as well as: Jean Renoir’s La bête humaine (1938; Criterion—which I’ve written about here), Ivan Passer’s Intimate Lighting (1965 ; Second Run), Sadao Yamanaka’s Humanity and Paper Balloons (1936; Eureka!/Master of Cinema), Michael Fengler & Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Why Does Herr R Run Amok? (1970; Fantoma); and also: Elia Kazan’s Baby Doll (1956; WB), Carol Reed’s The Fallen Idol (1948; Optimum), Mark Robson’s (or should that be Val Lewton’s?) The Seventh Victim (1943; WB), Károly Makk’s Love (1971; Second Run), Andrzej Wajda’s The Young Girls of Wilko (1979; Vanguard), Jacques Rivette’s Paris nous appartient (1960; BFI).

But the one real revelation was Mauritz Stiller’s Sir Arne’s Treasure, which Kino released with two other Stiller silents, Erotikon and The Saga of Gösta Berling. I’d been aware of the reputation of Swedish silent cinema (principally Stiller and Viktor Sjöstrom), but I hadn’t expected that Sir Arne’s Treasure would turn out to be one of the masterpieces of the silent cinema. It possesses a striking psychological depth and maturity, a highly developed sense of composition, and a simply stunning use of moving camera and, above all, of exterior locations, the natural settings for which the Swedish cinema of the time is rightly famous. For me, simply one of the highlights of 2006.

And, to conclude, as when it comes down to it, we all are fascinated by those top-ten lists, here’s mine for 2006. It’s restricted to “new” films, those whose distribution reached me for the first time in 2006.

1   Moments choisis des histoire(s) du cinéma
Jean-Luc Godard, 2004

2   Syndromes and a Century ( Sang sattawat )
Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2006

3   Innocence
Lucile Hadzihalilovic, 2004

4   The Sun ( Solntse )
Aleksandr Sokurov, 2005

5   Saraband
Ingmar Bergman, 2003

6   Dry Season
Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, 2006

7   Flandres
Bruno Dumont, 2006

8   Caché
Michael Haneke, 2005

9   Les amants réguliers
Philippe Garrel, 2005

10   Mysterious Skin
Greg Araki, 2004