2006: Good Movies (10-1)

At this point I must mention what films I didn’t get to in 2006 that I would like to have. This is in accordance with Andy Horbal’s much-referenced best-of lists critique (embraced by Jim Emerson among others). My writing isn’t yet strong enough to get behind everything he says, so my list is more description than discussion; next year I’ll no doubt be more adventurous and confident.

So: A Scanner Darkly and Fast Food Nation were two new films by Richard Linklater, one of my favourite directors. His failures are more interesting than most directors’ successes, and when he gets it right, his work is like nothing else (see Before Sunset).

Likewise, I missed Michel Gondry’s two releases, The Science of Sleep and Dave Chappelle’s Block Party, which I chastise myself over because Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was so good. How would he do without the safety net of Charlie Kaufman’s great screenwriting? I’ll have to find out later.

49 UP and Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple were the documentaries I most regretted missing. As you can see from my list (and last year’s), I consider documentary cinema to be on equal footing with fiction, and as Hollywood’s outlook seems to change for the worse every year, the growing popularity of documentaries is a wonderful side effect.

Finally, I probably ought to have seen Casino Royale, Flags of our Fathers and The Squid and the Whale. And there’s probably a hundred other films that were good that I didn’t really know anything about. Instead, I saw a few twice (#2, #3, #5, #10). But with that out of the way…

10. Children of Men – Alfonso Cuarón
The Mexican director/cinematographer pair of Cuarón and Emmanuel Lubezki turned my world upside down with this, the most groundbreaking film of the year. I’ve never seen anything like it; I would liken it more to the computer game Half-Life 2 than anything seen before in cinema. And that’s a huge compliment – it is a very good game, but my point is that this film is arguably the most immersive ever made. A script that is excellent in places and incredibly weak in others is totally overshadowed by some of the most incredible long takes and set pieces we’ll see for a while, and they all contribute to a sense of being part of the action. It’s also set in a childless future where anarchy mostly reigns, and it features fine acting from Clive Owen and Michael Caine among others. The film that surprised me most this year, but don’t I wish it could have ended differently.

9. Munich – Steven Spielberg
Bursting through almost unprecedented media attention (no small thing given Spielberg’s often controversial and extremely well-examined career), this film showed itself to be nothing like the defamatory, politically driven piece of work that was written about by so many. Perhaps because of this, it seemed to be somewhat overlooked by many, where in fact it may be the best film of Spielberg’s illustrious and varied oeuvre. A long, expansive film, it was Spielberg at his best in all facets of the craft: visually superb, great use of music, perfectly paced, and a great example of narrowing a wide focus down to one simple thing – the effects of the events in question on one man. Many questions were asked of us, many challenges laid down, and one could not help but leave the cinema in deep thought.

8. Waves – Li Tao
Certainly the least seen film on this list, Waves deserves as wide an audience as possible. It is very much a New Zealand story, but its scope is truly global. Boundaries are breaking down, and in her chronicle of four Chinese high school students being educated in New Zealand, Tao gets inside their experiences so intimately that we feel as if we know them personally afterwards. They are all very different people, and we understand why they live their lives as they do. Never ‘messagey’, never forced, this film will strike a chord with all who see it, because it offers a way of seeing that acknowledges cultural differences and shows how we are all similar. A vital, thought-provoking work.

7. Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room – Alex Gibney
I saw this right at the end of the year on DVD, and I just thought, wow – documentary perfection. The subject matter is fascinating, the talking heads insightful and passionate, the music expertly chosen, and the archive footage perfectly edited into place. It all adds up to a masterful blow-by-blow account of just what made the Enron debacle one of the most incredible events in Wall Street history. It’s a parade of scum, low human beings who knew they were fucking over millions and just laughed about it, even as they kept the public outlook positive. It would make a fine double bill with #6 – two films that expose the hubris and sheer audacity of some of our most powerful members of society.

6. Good Night, and Good Luck. – George Clooney
No messing about from Clooney on this, his second feature, which heralds a very encouraging future behind the camera. Respect for the audience is paramount as this straightforward, free-flowing films moves quickly through the story it has to tell. And what a story, especially in these times of pandering and dishonest journalism – much of the dialogue is directly taken from what the real people said, but their words are clearly chosen to reflect our current climate. Shot in glorious black and white, and enlivened by great acting by all (especially David Strathairn’s amazing performance as Ed Murrow), this is a finely orchestrated, highly enjoyable film. If it had been a bit longer, I might have placed it higher.

5. Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story – Michael Winterbottom
Not quite as flat-out enjoyable as the director’s earlier 24 Hour Party People, this was still one of the funniest movies of the year. More than that, though, it was one of the better films about films, a look at how absurd film sets really are. It is rambling and unfocused, like its predecessor, but the characters – from Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon hilariously playing themselves, to Naomie Harris’ passionate PA, to Mark Williams’ enthusiastic battle expert, to Elizabeth Berrington’s fragile costume lady, ad infinitum – are so well-drawn that you just slip straight into their world. Almost like real life! It helps if you love movies, but their ought to be something for everyone here.

4. Syriana – Stephen Gaghan
The one film of the year that had my brain in a total storm afterwards, I really, really need to see this again – it’s been almost a year. Each time I look back on it, my admiration grows. I had no idea how to write about it then, and I still struggle to have any coherent thought to express. It drops you right in the characters’ world without any preparation – the opening bombing set piece is masterfully executed, and sets the tone for the whole film – and throughout you feel one step behind, just as the characters invariably do. It’s like nobody connected with oil knows exactly what’s going on; many can see one small part of the picture, but never the whole thing. Either that or the people that can see it all are exploiting for all it’s worth. Like I said, I’d have to watch it again to make any sound judgment on it, but such daring, urgent filmmaking as this has to be encouraged.

3. De battre mon coeur s’est arrêté – Jacques Audiard
More excellence from one of France’s strongest filmmakers currently working, The Beat My Heart Skipped was probably my favourite film of the year (though obviously not quite the best). Like with his earlier (and slightly superior) Sur mes lèvres, Audiard places us in the utterly subjective film universe of Romain Duris’ Tom, a nervy, tension-filled ‘real estate developer’ looking to go straight by getting back into classical piano. Brilliantly, it is shown that practising the piano is a far more infuriating and spirit-crushing enterprise than beating up thugs for collection money. Alexandre Desplat’s score is great as usual, especially alongside the Paris dance-pop that is almost always in Tom’s ears. The epilogue will alienate many, but I thought it put the perfect full stop on an exhilirating and fascinating film.

2. Caché – Michael Haneke
Haneke’s latest assault on his own class is a clinical, endlessly debatable work that, like everything else he’s done, is deliberately designed to provoke. He doesn’t care if you walk out pissed off, upset or suicidal, as long as you have a reaction. And you will. What were they saying in that final shot? Should we feel sympathetic towards or disapproving of Auteuil’s character? The questions didn’t stop for me; in fact, I saw it twice to see if I could ‘get it’ on a second viewing (I didn’t). Afterwards, I felt manipulated like a patron at a magic show, but I’m damned if I wasn’t awed. This guy is in total control, and his brand of unsettling cinema is something I will return to again and again.

1. United 93 – Paul Greengrass
In the ultimate year of challenging, questioning cinema, United 93 outstripped everything else with its raw intensity. Instead of asking questions, it just laid the events bare and let you question things yourself. I was incredibly distressed by it, particularly a final shot of such horror and audacity that I am wary of seeing it again. There are no hidden agendas; this film is about nothing more than the events that occurred on September 11, 2001. No room for proselytizing or polemic here, just cold, hard facts. Many saw this as signifying a lack of meaning, a kind of needlessness; me, I thought it showed how Greengrass nailed our feelings by cutting through the hype and emphasizing how purely bloody frightening the whole thing was. Imagine being in that plane! Now you don’t have to. A staggering achievement.

Caché (2005) (E)

English title: ‘Hidden’
IMDb / Ebert / Cale / Calder / Crawford
Written and Directed by Michael Haneke

I’m not really one for Bazin, Truffaut et al’s so-called auteur theory – it’s my opinion that most films are very much collaborative efforts that no one person can take all credit for – but if there’s one director alive who fits it, it’s Michael Haneke. The two films of his that I’ve seen, La Pianiste (The Piano Teacher) and now Caché, offer director-as-star filmmaking in its purest, most fascinating form. His films are cold, clinical, detached, and disquieting, all in a good way. Like Gaspar Noé, he actively intends to manipulate the audience, but unlike that director he eschews visual trickery. He draws your emotions out slowly, then pulls them wherever he wants, and after the film is over leaves you to wrestle with them on your own.

After Caché, I thought of calling his directorial style ‘minimalist’, but that wouldn’t be true. The camera is often static, and when it moves it’s usually slowly and carefully; the sound design is simply functional, using only incidental sound with no music or effects. However, what happens within the frame is intricately choreographed, particularly in many long-range shots – you get the feeling that every shot (even when it only contains one or two people) has more going on than you could possibly take in, either at a physical or metaphysical level. In other words, it’s the content, not the process of filming it, that provides incredible depth and mindblowing detail. In this respect he is very much an actor’s director, but upon reflection, his restrained, cold technical style is impressive and suits the material well.

And what material. As in La Pianiste, Caché is concerned with real-life situations, scenes that you can easily imagine being played out in the real world. Every person who moves across the screen gives the impression of a life being lived, which is a testament to the actors but also to Haneke’s writing – get your central figures totally believable, and it’s that much easier to trust the rest of the film’s universe. On the face of it, Caché is a standard-issue thriller: the Laurents (father Georges, mother Anne, son Pierrot) receive a series of videotapes which contain footage pertaining to their lives – two hours at a time of the action outside their front door, Georges’ childhood home, a seemingly unfamiliar suburban street corner. They are often accompanied by disturbing, childlike drawings. However, traditional thriller elements rarely surface, and are replaced by an exploration of familial trust, honesty and guilt – the stuff that many of us deal with in our daily lives.

Watching the interactions between husband and wife, father and son, mother and son is as difficult as anything in the film, because they seem real people talking about real problems. I’ll go ahead and get it out of the way: Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche, luminaries of French cinema, are near definitive of the profession in their performances, but they are almost upstaged by Lester Makedonsky, who plays their son. If you can understand any French, pay close attention to the way characters speak in this film, especially in the family: words are mumbled and missed in the way that only people very familiar are capable of doing. It is almost voyeuristic, which is no surprise given Haneke’s earlier films. The scenes between Auteuil and Binoche are charged with massive amounts of suppressed resentment, anger, and resignation, and are an education in screen acting. For me, though, the kid Makedonsky’s line delivery and reactions are note-perfect every single time he appears – it’s a remarkable child performance that is so good it deserves academic study.

Back to Haneke. As the film progresses, subtle aesthetic choices are made to mix things up and unsettle. For example, a particularly significant hallway is shot the same way three times, but the fourth time it is shot from the opposite angle. I don’t really know what to say about things like this, other than that they blow my mind when I think about them – how did he come up with such a simple and effective way of chilling me right to my bones? And if you haven’t deduced as much from the censor’s classification, there are disturbing images (one in particular) that are so shocking as to be burned into your memory forever. It’s the familiar images (of which there are many) that haunt the most, though, because of the different action that takes place within them each time we see them.

There’s so much artifice on display here, but so little artificiality. Haneke manipulates, questions and even threatens you, but he does it without striking any jarringly out-of-place notes. Caché will eat at me as my brain remembers and uncovers more, until I see it again, which I undoubtedly will (one viewing is not nearly enough to come to a coherent understanding of a film like this). I suspected beforehand that it might be the best film of the year, and so it was proved. It’s only April, but I’d be surprised if I see anything in cinemas better than this in 2006.