My complaints for ’06 paid off−this year was a deluge of good films, and even a handful of great ones. Rather than ranking in order of preference, the list below is alphabetized by title, and highlighted with designated “award“ categories of sorts (some serious, but mostly for amusement). My initial reaction after composing this list is that this was an enormously imaginative year for American cinema, and a badly needed one at that.
I saw a good deal of old films this year for the first time, my favorites noted here among several new releases. The landslide for ’07 began at the New York Film Festival, and hasn’t let up as of yet; even as I write this I have not seen 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Southland Tales, and a handful of others that will have to wait until next year.
James Benning’s American Dreams snagged my attention some time ago, with its perverse interpretation of American nostalgia, and its wonderfully intricate structuring of the passage of time. Apparently his 13 Lakes and Ten Skies, from 2004, have been screened on numerous occasions, but I only caught them for the first time back in February. I don’t think I had a better opportunity for meditation this year; lost in the shifting light and sounds, the tiny alteration of a sky to the slightest shade of pink, I was completely transfixed by organic filmmaking.
Between Knocked Up and Juno, unplanned pregnancy was a highlight in Hollywood comedies this year (and also a trend among the starlet/harlot set). In contrast to these sunnier takes on the result of a lack of contraception, my first viewing of David Lynch’s Eraserhead, in a restored print at MoMA early this year exemplifies a frightening, if grotesquely exaggerated retort to the wonders of childbirth. However one interprets that “child,” it is one of the most sickening images in cinema, and one of the most memorable; considering Lynch was my sole highlight of last year, it was extremely satisfying to watch the director’s first film and feel just as disconcerted.
Casting the inexplicably charming, but obviously East Coast and very un-Bogart Elliot Gould as Philip Marlowe, director Robert Altman wasn’t exactly hiding his love/hate relationship with Hollywood. While the narcissism of 1970s Tinseltown is languidly captured (in an oh so gorgeous haze), Altman undercuts the allure with his surreal interpretation of a Chandler novel, quoting films from A Star is Born to The Third Man along the way. Screening log
Held up against the verbally sharp, but emotionally cautious familial dramas that are increasingly cluttering move theaters, a John Cassavetes film, with its excessive, bold strokes, feels somewhat unnatural these days. Both Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands star in this turbulent tale of a middle-aged brother and sister who reunite as their lives are unraveling, and neither flinch when showing the inexcusable behavior of this pair, as their boozy, manic-depressive actions unavoidably hurt both themselves and their families. Yet he also manages to convey their desperation to love and feel loved, as screwed-up and co-dependent as it can be. The emotions on-screen here can feel like a train wreck; they also embody a naked, painful, and ultimately tender expression of the human condition.
For anyone who doesn’t know, Jacques Rivette’s Out 1 is a twelve hour, forty minute film that is rarely screened; aside from the running time, the print does not have subtitles burned into it. Instead individuals must be hired to project the soft-titles onto the screen, an understandably formidable challenge. The plot consists of numerous plot threads and seemingly random sequences involving a troupe of actors, a conspiracy theorist, a girl with a gun, and numerous idiosyncratic characters who increasingly connect over the entire piece. Out 1 was screened over a full weekend in early March, at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria.
I don’t believe I’ve had a more extreme viewing experience than this film. I recognize its place in Rivette’s oeuvre, and its challenge as an endurance screening. However, by the end of the first day, I felt irrationally angry, and halfway through the next I thought I might really snap—rather than focusing on the film, I felt as though I had been awake for a few days straight, was highly irritable and kept wondering why I bothered not only with Out 1, but any film whatsoever. I walked out nearly ten hours in, and Out 1 shut down my movie watching for over two months. Despite my initial negative reaction, it was an extremely introverted, intense two days that I haven’t entirely shaken since, and reflection has made me tentatively glad I attended. If anything, this might be the only truly cathartic filmic experience I’ve had; watching films has only felt better since.
This officially comes out next year, but was undoubtedly my favorite festival screening. Full review
While The Red Balloon and Zazie are worth far more than the space I’m going to give them here, I owe Persepolis, as I saw it screened at this year’s New York Film Festival and neglected to write it up then. In short, The Red Balloon, while as scarring as I’d heard (the punctured balloon, slowly losing air before being stamped into oblivion by a French brat is a heartbreaking moment), is also exquisitely beautiful, and the rally of the Parisian balloons would have probably made me cheer out-loud as a child. Louis Malle’s Zazie is quite the opposite; rough and tumble, the film is a raucous jaunt through Paris by a foul-mouthed brat who experiences the city through incredible slapstick glasses. The physical comedy mimes Buster Keaton to the Marx Brothers, and includes an inspired tightrope walk atop the Eiffel Tower.
Sketched in stark black and white, Persepolis has a vivacious heart, as a young girl comes of age in pre-and post-revolutionary Iran. An adolescent drama that conveys not merely the difficulty of being a teenager, but one in a war torn country, what makes this autobiographical tale (directed by the graphic novel’s author, Marjane Satrapi) so appealing is the lack of self-pity or woe, as the traumatic story could have easily been construed by another as a movie of the week. While Marjane makes mistakes, passing through the normal trials of self-absorption and angst, she brims with intelligence and evolving self-worth, leaning on her older, wiser female relatives for guidance, as she maneuvers her way to young adulthood, and accepting not only herself, but also her heritage. This is a marvelous film, warm, intelligent, and beautifully realized; if that isn’t enough urging to see Persepolis, a scene expressing the inspiration Marjane finds in music, particularly Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger,” is easily enough to make this one of the year’s best films.
When the projectionist accidentally loaded the first reel again about two-thirds of the way into the film, cheers, not boos, broke out as David Shire’s brassy score resonated once more in the theater. This moment perfectly expressed the euphoric mood that night, and I honestly don’t believe anyone would have minded if they had to play the entire film through twice.
I lied about preferences. Having already reviewed this, I can only reiterate how completely unsettling this film is, and that I can’t wait to see it again. Full review
Actually, Zodiac is far more than that. I confess to a slight fascination with serial killer stories, but David Fincher’s disciplined, existential dive into obsession sidesteps traditional crime narrative and becomes something far more disquieting. In some ways, the tenacious pursuit of Zodiac’s cartoonist parallels the measured deduction of the aging narrator in the Coen brothers’ No Country for Old Men. While Robert Graysmith’s youth keeps him searching for answers far beyond the end credits of the film, Sheriff Bell instead chooses to acknowledge the inevitable in our contemporary culture of violence; anonymity and often random acts, with no hope for comeuppance.