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So much to see
A personal pick of the year's cinema and DVD releases by Slarek
 
the films

It's a times like this that I realise how fortunate I was to discover so early in my viewing career that cinema, true cinema, lies far beyond what modern Hollywood has to offer, something that has become far more pronounced in recent years. While friends whose film diet consists largely of the mainstream were struggling to find five films to select as their best of the year, I'm having to whittle it down from something like fifty, and I haven't seen half of the films or DVDs that I wanted to. Nailing it down to a specific number is painful, but I needed to put a lid on it and almost randomly chose ten as my limit.

To do that my criteria had to get tough. Some films ended up being excluded on a technicality, because they were released in the UK in the previous year and I didn't get to see them until early 2006, usually at screenings I helped organise (a combination of having to plan film seasons well in advance and a reluctance of distributors to release film prints for one-night shows until the week-long runs have finished sometimes saw the DVD appear before our cinema showing). Then there are the films that I have only seen once and suspect that further viewings might just edge them onto the list, viewings I have tragically not yet found time for. It's not that I wasn't bowled over on the first viewing, but I like to see a film at least twice before I rubber stamp it as having longevity as well as initial Wow factor. And of course there are the titles that did not quite make the list purely on the basis of personal preference, and I do mean not quite - I would still recommend all of these films highly to anyone looking to see what cinema did right this year (see the bar to the right).

And so to the top ten, in no particular order.


The Child (L'Enfant)

The Dardenne brothers do it again with this utterly compelling tale of a cheerful young ner-do-well who trades anything he can fence or steal but steps way over the mark when he sells his own new-born baby, starting him on the road to painful redemption. Astonishing performances, invisible filmmaking and a gut-wrenchingly emotional (but still optimistic) ending made this a worthy Cannes winner.

The Sun (Solntse)
Alexandr Sokurov's extraordinary portrait of Emperor Hirohito as the leader of defeated nation is likely to alienate as many viewers as it captivates, not least in its relentlessly grubby digital visuals and lack of traditional dramatic arcs. But if you can clue in to Sokurov's approach, this is a hypnotic piece, centred around a remarkable central performance from Issei Ogata as Hirohito and boasting some of the most unsettling and complex sound design of the year.

A Cock and Bull Story
Michael Winterbottom's deliciously playful adaptation of an 'unfilmable' book in which Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon play film versions of themselves playing characters in a film adaptation of the book this film is based on. With me so far? A delight from start to finish (and I mean that - stay with the end credits), it dazzles in its wild inventiveness and is frequently downright hilarious.

13 (Tzameti)
The most wound up I have been watching a film all year. Géla Babluani's stomach-knotting thriller is best approached completely cold, with no foreknowledge of what is about to unfold. But grow your fingernails first - it'll give you plenty to chew on.

Grizzly Man
I'm still astonished at just how many people I know emerged from Werner Herzog's superb documentary with an almost vehement dislike for the man at its centre, the young, deluded, self-centred but still fascinating Timothy Treadwell. Intercutting Treadwell's often remarkable DV footage with newly shot interview material, the film provides a compelling and ultimately saddening peek into a troubled mind.

Hidden (Caché)
A too-obvious choice perhaps, but Michael Haneke's pared-down thriller was one of the year's most intelligently crafted and unsettling films, its portrait of a middle-class family in gradual decline developing key themes from the director's earlier work, while it's most notorious moment sent a genuine shock wave through the cinema.

The Wind That Shakes the Barley
Perhaps not my very favourite Ken Loach film, but for my money is still the best British film of the year (well OK, it ties with A Cock and Bull Story), this partisan look at the early days of IRA resistance in the face of Black and Tan brutality can be punishing viewing, but is ferociously well performed, beautifully shot and edited, and shows that even at 70, Loach shows no signs of mellowing out.

Offside
Just about the best film about football I've seen has almost no football in it. Jafar Panahi's witty, involving and politically minded examination of the inequality for women in modern Iran was apparently shot during the very world cup qualifying game that acts as the background, which gives rise to probably the most joyous climax in Iranian film history.

Paradise Now
The story of two close friends who are selected to become suicide bombers in the Palestinian cause develops into a gripping and heart-felt plea for a peaceful solution to a continuously tragic conflict. The film repeatedly catches you out, not least in its use of humour in the most unexpected of moments.

The Death of Mr. Lazarescu
For me the year's most poignant film, an all-too-relevant tale of an old man who suffers at the hands of an underfunded and overstretched healthcare system (here Romanian, but many scenes will ring uncomfortable bells with a British audience), and overly judgemental medical personnel.

the DVDs

The films are just as important here, but how they are presented on DVD is the key criteria, one I admit that I've stretched a bit for a couple of my choices. A great DVD can enhance a great movie, while a lousy one can not only scupper its content, but effectively destroy the hope that someone else will coming along and get it right in the near future (Network's shoddy handling of The Last Place on Earth is a prime example). There were plenty of near misses, and a fair few that I've not had the chance to see yet, including a slew of Criterion discs (Pandora's Box is sitting by my player as I type), a fair few box sets (I'm still working my way through the crammed six discs of Tartan's Vengeance Trilogy) and the Buster Keaton and Naruse sets from Masters of Cinema, which I have no doubt would have otherwise made the list. Once again, the order is random.

Primer
The most mind-bendingly complex science fiction film in years is almost impossible to completely decode, even after multiple viewings, but demonstrates just what can be achieved when ideas rather than money drive the project (the budget was just $7,000). Although a seemingly sneaky way of including a film that was actually released in 2005 (which again we did not screen until 2006), a film that demands multiple viewings and the rechecking of key moments to decipher is perfect for DVD, and is as well presented as you'll find on Tartan's UK release, with a fine transfer and two enjoyable commentary tracks.

Apocalypse Now - The Complete Dossier
OK, it was still missing the feature documentary Hearts of Darkness, but in all other ways this was the realisation of my dream release for Francis Coppola's hypnotic masterpiece, with gorgeous picture and sound and an astounding array of extras, all at a price that bordered on the charitable.

The Double Life of Véronique
A hypnotic film, beautifully presented on Artificial Eye's 2-disc DVD release, licensed from French distributor Mk2. Criterion have since also released the film, but I can't see it topping this one on quality and I can certainly live without the 'expert' commentary.

Faust (Masters of Cinema)
Another glorious restoration of an extraordinary work of cinema, this 2 DVD set has both cuts of the film, two scores, a fine commentary and a useful featurette.

Paranoia Agent - The Complete Box Set
A brilliant anime series that landed on my desk in what must rank as the happiest chance event of my viewing year. It had me hooked from the first episode, explores issues of modern Japanese society with an intelligence that left live-action dramas standing, and has an opening title sequence that I grew to adore.

Harlan County U.S.A.
A great political documentary and a key work of Direct Cinema that is given the Criterion treatment it so thoroughly deserves.

Kwaidan (Masters of Cinema)
A beautiful restoration of one of Japanese cinema's most hauntingly eerie works, and one that inspired almost every Japanese horror film since.

Survive Style 5+
The maddest film of the year gets an inclusion because as far as I am aware there was no UK cinema release, and thus Manga's DVD is doubly welcome. A great drinking movie with eye-popping production design and balls the size of asteroids, it's also the only time I've watched Vinny Jones on screen and smiled with delight.

The Quay Brothers Short Films 1979-2003
A marvellous and meticulously produced collection of some of the most important and imaginative animated films of recent years. Packed with goodies, including some unexpected and terrific Quay commentaries, the transfers are little short of perfect.

Seven Samurai - Criterion 3-disc Special Edition
A magnificent film given stunning treatment on probably Criterion's most eagerly anticipated release this year. An essential purchase for anyone who considers themselves a true film fan.

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Pick of the Year 2006 – CNash