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Review of the Year 2004, Part 2: The Films
by Slarek
 
Bypassing Hollywood

Any so-called 'best of' listing is inevitably subjective – just recently the BBC included writer and film-maker Michael Moore in their winners and losers of 2004, placing him high up in the losers column because George Dubwa was re-elected despite Moore's best efforts (which gave Moore hater Mark Kermode a chance to really sneer at his film). But Fahrenheit 9/11 still won the top prize at Cannes, the first documentary to do so since 1956 and the first ever to make more than $100 million at the box office. Moore also wrote one of the year's best-selling books with Stupid White Men, and has been credited with almost single-handedly kick-starting the re-popularisation of the documentary feature, proving that any listing is always a matter of perspective. So I'm tating up front that this is not about best and worst, no matter what terminology I may end up using, but about my personal favourites. My personal favourites. Feel free to disagree, but if there are films here you don't know, then I'd urge anyone of a like mind (and the composition of the final list should clue you in here) to at least check them out.

Some of you may have picked up that I'm not a big fan of Hollywood mainstream movies, at least the ones that have been churned out in recent years. There are always exceptions, but on the whole I have been able to devide many of the big releases between the ones I saw and did not enjoy one bit and the ones I just could not be arsed to drag myself to the cinema to see – when your spare time is limited, you have to be ruthless. There are also films that I would normally have expected to like but didn't (Hellboy was, for me, a considerable misstep for the brilliant Guillermo del Toro, and despite being a big fan of the TV series Spaced, I found Shaun of the Dead painfully unfunny), while my initial enthusiasm for Lost in Translation quickly faded on second and third viewings, particularly its cardboard portrayal of the Japanese and of Japan as a place whose major fault is that it's just not American enough, a common complaint from foreign visitors to the country.

The problem for many fans of non-mainstream and non-US cinema who do not live in a metropolitan area is access to the films themselves. Sure, DVD has turned all that around, but if you want to see the films in the cinema - and what self-respecting film fan doesn't? - you're facing an uphill struggle. A small group of us found a partial solution to this ten years ago by starting a film society in co-operation with the local cinema manager, but this is a very time consuming thing to run and allows you just one film a week, and even then you have to balance the films you think would be good to show with specific requests from the regular audience who pay for the (expensive) 35mm print hire.

Increasingly, with distributors only prepared to supply prints for an entire week for the first run, by the time we get to screen the films they have already made it out on DVD. Fortunately there are enough like-minded locals who come to see the films regardless - seeing a film on film, on a big screen and with a large and receptive audience is still the best way to view any cinematic work for the first time. The result of this enforced screening delay, though, means that I'm still waiting to see some films that I have a strong feeling would have made my list otherwise and will end up having to see them on DVD anyway, which means they'll be shuffled forward to next year's selection.

the top ten

As I said, a subjective choice and inevitably limited by what I have been able to get access to and fit into my increasingly hectic work schedule. They are in no particular order, and links to appropriate reviews have been included.

The Motorcycle Diaries (Walter Salles)
Before stepping into the Hollywood remake machine with the Americanisation of Hideo Nakata's Dark Water, Brazilian director Walter Salles helmed this wonderful adaptation of the diaries of one Ernesto 'Che' Guevara, in which he recorded his 8,000 mile trip across Latin America with his close friend Alberto Granado in the 1950s, initially aboard an old and battered Norton motorcycle dubbed 'The Mighty One'. There has been a great deal of publicity surrounding the cross between Reality TV and Travalogue that was Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman's trip around the world by motorcycle in Long Way Round, but not only does The Motorcycle Diaries detail a journey that was to prove life changing and ultimately transform the political map of South America, but is actually a far more entertaining and substantial work. The first half is a riot of fast-paced character scenes and comic mishaps, the second an almost documentary-like look at the need for change in a land ruled by social injustice. Featuring two terrific central performances from the consistently impressive Gael García Bernal as Ernesto and newcomer Rodrigo De la Serna as Alberto, this is a delight from start to finish, only tripping up briefly towards the end through its mistakenly perceived need to provide a climactic scene in a film that simply does not need one.

Dogville (Lars von Trier)
Lars von Trier has always devided audiences, but he is a quintessential Outsider director and about as far from a Hollywood film-maker as you can imagine, and despite an all-star cast that includes Nicole Kidman, Lauren Bacall, James Caan, Jean-Marc Barr, Ben Gazzara and Blair Brown, Dogville is most definitely no exception. Set entirely in a sparse stage representation of a small Colorado town in the 1930s and running for almost 3 hours, this is an utterly compelling look at the dark underside that exists in even the most generous-seeming of communities, and features a quite devastating performance from Nicole Kidman as Grace, the unfortunate victim of humanity at its most inhumane. Though it has been accused of being anti-American, the film's message is far more universal than that simplistic put-down allows for - despite its setting, the film is about all of us, about the sheer notion of civilisation, and if it paints a picture that is neither pretty to see nor comfortable to live with, then more power to von Trier for that. An overpowering experience in the cinema, it still stuns on DVD, especially in the feature-packed Danish release.

Elephant (Gus Van Sant)
I was originally very sceptical of Gus Van Sant's most recent film, partly because of his pointless and irritating remake of Psycho, partly because I already knew the title from a superb 1989 TV film by Alan Clarke, also dealing with the issue of gun violence. Was this another case of Hollywood once again stealing someone else's idea and doing their own, watered down version of it? But the more I heard about it, the more intrigued I became, and we soon decided this was something we had to screen at the cinema. I was gobsmacked. Van Sant had clearly seen Clarke's film and learned from it, and had made a similarly bold and minimalist study of an event that was close to the heart of many Americans: that of two boys who go on a killing spree at their high school. Long tracking shots following characters as they walk around the school, half-caught conversations about nothing in paricular... there is an extraordinary 'ordinariness' to this world - this is everyday stuff involving unremarkable people, which makes what happens all the more shocking, as there is no drama, or should I say no melodrama, to the events themselves, and no heroes to come in at the last moment and save the day. Despite hinting in several directions, Van Sant avoids suggesting any clear reasons for the tragedy, but creates an air of increasing tension and horror - actually enhanced by the non-linear structure - that stayed with me for weeks afterwards.

Zatoichi (Takeshi Kitano)
Kitano's first remake, as such, though given that there have been something 25 Zatoichi films - the character is a Japanese institution of the magnitude of James Bond - this played more as a new take on a familiar figure. Though they had started off as serious samurai films, they soon began to mix the swordplay with comedy, which in a sense made the series perfect material for the versatile Kitano, whose tales of violence have always been tinged with moments of sometimes devine comedy. Here he combines these elements beautifully in a film that enables him to explore Japan's cultural and cinematic past (Kurosawa is playfully referenced more than once), incorporate non-fictional elements and even embrace the changing nature of his country's own entertainment traditions with a musical climax that deftly combines the old with the new to rousing effect. Some have tried to pass this off as a lightweight Kitano work, but pay no attention - he may be having fun, but his is doing so with all of his customary style, skill and eye for layering and detail.

The Return (Andrey Zvyagintsev)
This Russian tale of an estranged father who unexpectedly returns after twelve years away to take his two sons on a fishing trip is quite simply one of the most arresting coming-of-age films to emerge from anywhere in years. The father's purpose is to transform his sons into men, but while the teenage Ivan responds positively to his sometimes overly authorotative approach, the younger Andrey refuses to believe that this man is his father at all, and fears for the fate of both himself and his brother. An almost completely character-driven piece that benefits from utterly convincing performances from the three leads, none more so than Vladimir Garin, who is superb as the young Andrey. Grippingly atmospheric, beautifully shot and directed with astonishing cofidence by first-timer Andrey Zvyagintsev, a sad postscript was added when young actor Vladimir Garin, who played Ivan, was drowned shortly after the completion of filming in an accident that was tragically mirrored by the film's opening scene.

Decasia (Bill Morrison)
The avante-garde film event of the year, Bill Morrison's 70 minute gallery piece is comprised entirely of damaged film clips, painstakingly selected from hours and hours of nitrate stock footage by Morrison and set to a sometimes thunderous but never completely comfortable score by Michael Gordon. This is a work that is never going to find an audience with the multiplex crowd, and actually prompted a few walk-outs at the screening I attended (although those I spoke to later freely admitted that they had simply found the combination of sound and imagery too overpowering), but for the open-minded viewer searching for an alternative to narrative cinema, this is an artistic treat, the cinematic equivalent of a attending a performance of a Gyorgi Ligeti symphony by the London Symphony Orchestra as you slip through a broken-down version of 2001's Jupiter stargate. This is a purely audio-visual experience that I just cannot see working half as well on DVD - this absolutely has to be seen in a cinema with the sound cranked up to the max.

Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter... and Spring (Kim Ki-duk)
In a startling change of pace from his previous action-based films, Korean Kim Ki-duk's enigmatically titled work uses the five seasons to illustrate five key chapters in the life of a young apprentice of an ageing monk - played by Kim himself - on a small floating monestary in the middle of a mountain lake. This is not so much a story about Buddhism as a film infused with it, and if some of the lessons learned are obvious ones, the sebtextual and sub-structural complexity of this gentle and unhurried film becomes increasingly impressive on subsequent viewings, and is a spellbinding experience in a cinema (a full cinema, I might add), where its moments of character humour are particularly effective.

Memories of Murder (Bong Joon-ho)
In a particular good year for Korean exports (and I have yet to catch up with Park Chan-wook's Oldboy), Bong Joon-ho's Memories of Murder proved to be not just the finest Korean police drama in years, it was one of the the best crime films from anywhere so far this millennium. Based on the true case of Korea's first recorded serial killings, the story unfolds beautifully, enriched throughout with a delightful level of character detail and moments of sublime comedy, an aspect that works particularly well in the cinema with an appreciative audience, but still raises a smile on DVD. Gorgeously shot and paced, it features a string of fine performances, notably from Song Kang-ho - who impressed so much in Park Chan-wook's chillingly brilliant Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance - as the country cop whose clear-up rate has less to do with his skills as a detective than his ability to entrap and intimidate suspects. A terrific film, whatever the format it is viewed on.

A Silence Between Two Thoughts (Babak Payami)
Iranian director Babak Payami followed up his very fine 2001 film Secret Ballot with this arresting, minimalist tale of a village executioner who at the last minute is prevented from killing a young woman under sentenced of death. The woman, he is told, is a virgin, and it is decreed that all virgins gain automatic entry to heaven, no matter what their manner of death. In order that the sentence be carried out, the executioner is ordered to marry and deflower the girl, so that when she is killed she will instead go to hell, and religious justice will thus be seen to be done. Almost invisibly paced, there is still an impressive economy to the exposure of the back stories - we learn a huge amount about the the unnamed executioner's past through a brief conversation he has with his young sister. A subtle but powerful attack on religious fundementalism, the film landed Payami in trouble with the authorities before the film was even complete - the studio was raided, all copies of the film were seized and Payami spent a short time in jail. The print on show was assembled from a variety of video sources, including timecoded rushes, resulting in some stark shifts in picture quality and the occasional appearance of timecode on screen, which, though distracting, failed to seriously harm the film's impact. We can only hope that one day a fully restored print of this remarkable work will be made available.

A Mighty Wind (Christopher Guest)
OK, it's not a genuinely great film like Memories of Murder or The Return or a bold political statement like A Silence Between Two Thoughts and it's essentially replaying a formula Guest has already used twice before in Waiting for Guffman (1996) and Best in Show (2000), but no ther film I saw at the cinema last year was more fun, especially with a large audience, and one liberally peppered with folk musicians, who got even the most cleverly disguised jokes. As with his previous mockumentaries, there is a cheerful exhuberance to the performances and parody that wedged my mouth into a smile from the opening minutes and regularly had the entire cinema laughing out loud. Guest knows his subject and has honed his style - first learned as an actor on Rob Reiner's godfather of mockumentary films, This is Spinal Tap (1984) - to such a degree that it seems almost effortless, aided no end by a cast that has in effect become a repertory company in themselves, and seem to revel in the delightful absurdities of their characters. The songs, surprisingly, are every bit as good - some might say better - that those they are parodying.

Related articles
Review of the Year 2004, Part 1: The Documentaries
Review of the Year 2004, Part 3: The DVDs