“Art is not the application of a canon of beauty but what the instinct and the brain can conceive beyond any canon. When we love a woman we don’t start measuring her limbs.”—Pablo Picasso
Picasso’s view hasn’t curbed a proliferation of top lists tangential to the August instalment of Sight and Sound’s esteemed Poll. Great critics like Roger Ebert have noted said poll’s bias against recent films. They may not make ‘em like they used to, but there’s more good movies than one person can watch, let alone write about. Alexander Bisley chips his few talas into the conversation, recalling eleven terrific films from his first decade as a critic.
25th Hour (Spike Lee, USA, 2002)
Scorsese on Spike Lee: “It’s a unique vision. And it’s a vision that’s much needed in American cinema.” 25th Hour is a graceful post 9/11 New York elegy. Monty Brogan (Edward Norton) is off to The Big House for seven so long after getting touched with a kilo of smack. His best friend Francis Xavier Slaughtery (Barry Pepper) is a Wall St trader: “I’m Irish, I can’t get drunk.” Philip Seymour Hoffman (troubled English teacher friend Jacob) also got game. Packed with memorable dialogue a la Francis’: “Jacob, you’re a rich Jewish kid from the Upper East side who’s ashamed of his wealth. Fuck that, that’s some kneejerk liberalism bullshit.” Lee soulfully conveys the effect of incarceration (and “the consequences of not examining what you’re doing”) on an individual and their lover, friends and family. Most thoughtful and entertaining, with edgy rhythm. There’s an extraordinary hate-love scene where Monty blows up like Tongariro in August. (Scorsese’s still making damn good films per The Aviator; you can’t really expect the freshly incendiary Taxi Driver, which I was lucky to see alive on the big screen through a restored print of at New York’s MOMI recently.)
Abouna (Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, Chad, 2002)
Abouna (Our Father), Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s second film, is a rare, sophisticated insight into Mama Africa; awe-inspiringly specific, yet universal. Tahir (Ahidjo Mahamet Moussa), 15, and Amine (Hamza Moctar Aguid), 8, are desperate to find their father, after he suddenly leaves their home in Chad. The boys think they see him in a movie at the local theatre and steal the print. They are sent to a harsh Islamic school in the countryside. Tahir develops a relationship with a gorgeous mute girl; Amine struggles with his asthma. The actors are luminous, especially young Aguid. Abraham Haile Biru’s seductive images, green and orange incandescence, are enhanced by Diego Mustapha N’Garade and Ali Farka Toure’s guitar music. Abouna has a delightful sense of humour, such as “the water’s cut” scene. There are some magnificent scenes: from the shot of motherly tenderness towards Amine to the debate over the meaning of “irresponsible”, the epithet mum has given dad. African runner up: Moolaade, the last word from Senegalese elder Ousmane Sembene, also has some extraordinarily vibrant, optimistic moments. With the wit, fire and saw-toothed, egalitarian consciousness he forged as an immigrant Marseille dockworker. Both a patriarch and a feminist, Sembene believed in ordinary people’s daily heroism; Colle’s courage is hope.
In the Dark (Sergey Dvortsevoy, Russia, 2004)
“They used to be nice to look at,” In the Dark’s Vanya reminisces as we hear the poignant lilt of the swings (painted blue, but unseen) on the ground below his small Moscow apartment. This perfectly observed, beautifully constructed Chekhovian piece of minimalism documents the cosmic story of Vanya and his cat in only 40 minutes. The old, blind Russian painstakingly knits shopping bags out of string; meanwhile his cat causes much mischief, tangling his materials. They have a love-hate relationship. Vanya alternates insults (“It’s not a cat, it’s a monster”) and threats (“I’ll call the police”), with tenderness (“My dear, my sweet honey”). Vanya goes to the street outside with his bags: “Take one. They’re free”. He’s treated with boorish disdain and rejection. Responses such as “We’ve got plastic bags” and “The time for these bags has passed.” There’s a hilarious scene with some drunken, foul-mouthed bums philosophising. Vanya returns to his apartment and cries, but his faith will carry him. A Hollywood remake remains unlikely.
The Last Train (Aleksei German Jr, Russia, 2003)
Profoundly compassionate, The Last Train is one of the greatest anti-war films ever made. Russian Aleksei German Jr’s debut is riveting and startling from its opening shot, which brings to mind a Rembrandt portrait. German doctor Paul Fishbach (the marvellously expressive Pavel Romanov) is a fat, awkward nobody drafted to Germany’s front with Russia during the last days of World War Two. Francois Truffaut said it was impossible to make an anti-war film because war was inherently exciting. German Jr masterfully strips war of any excitement: it’s a humanistic insight into its pure boredom, awfulness, and senselessness. Elegiac and visionary, it shows how everyone is brutalised and dehumanised by war. Fishbach’s mission becomes self-preservation. He stumbles around hopelessly in the snow, seeking salvation. the snowy, harsh environment Stunningly shot in black and white CinemaScope, the images capture like taiaha enveloping puku; complemented by the inventive pitiless soundscape of hacking coughs. Sublime Bach accompanies two key scenes. Fishbach has seen horrors: “Why is all of this happening?” I’d like to include Apocalypse Now Redux, but it’s really 70s turf.
Match Point (Woody Allen, USA/UK, 2005)
Do critics line up to gleefully gangbang Hitchcock, Ozu and the Dardennes for “repetition”? Considering quality, volume, and stamina, few are as good as Allen, and none are better. Smouldering, riveting and darkly comic/true, Match Point marked the start of his exciting foray into Europe.
Nobody Knows (Hirozaku Kore-eda, Japan, 2004)
It’s a shame most of Kore-eda’s films are underdistributed, because he may be the best Japanese film director (Air Doll, Still Walking) working today; challenging, accessible, and profound. Nobody Knows, his masterpiece about resilient wronged children, maintains the Japanese humanistic tradition Ozu and Kurosawa (and Kitano with Kikujiro) are more famously feted for. Freighted by wondrous performances, Nobody Knows still tears me up just thinking about it.
No Country For Old Men (Joel & Ethan Coen, USA, 2007)
“They’re just taking more away from you.” Command of cinematic technique wedded to potent content. The Coens capture the nihilism of our times, with a fierce performance from Javier Bardem. The Coens consistently impress, but No Country for Old Men has an emotional and philosophical edge. Kudos to Michael Mann for including Alejandro Inarritu’s underrated Biutiful, featuring an awesome performance by Barca Bardem, in his Sight & Sound ten.
The Orator (Tusi Tamasese, Samoa/New Zealand, 2011)
I love Taika Waititi’s Boy, but The Orator, the first feature shot in Samoan, is the most ka mau te wehi. Tusi Tamasese’s lapidary debut captures Samoa so sparely and vividly you feel it in your bones. Funny and sad, primal and sensuous, tactile and unforgettable.
Samson and Delilah (Warwick Thornton, Australia, 2009)
Warwick Thornton’s mighty subjects are two runaway Aboriginal teenagers, Samson and Delilah. Superb indigenist visual style and sound design; astonishing, verbally minimalist performances; abundant compassion; intuitive direction. My friend looked like a broken man after watching it; I was inspired.
Still Bill and various documentaries (Damani Baker, Alex Vlack, USA, 2009)
Still Bill is an inspirational Bill Withers record. The soul singer who wonderful contributions include ‘Harlem’ (still evokes the dynamic neighbourhood beautifully), ‘Use Me’, and ‘Make Love to Your Mind’ is an awesome man. “It’s okay to head to wonderful, but on your way to wonderful you will have to pass through alright, and when you get to alright, take a good look around and get used to it because that may be as far as you gonna go.” New Zealand’s patchy distribution system let it down; but, like almost everything else, you can find Still Bill on the internet.
“He’s a cretin, but he’s our cretin”, Citizen King’s Noland Walker on Michael Moore. Spellbound’s Jeff Blitz also told me he respected Moore, not least for beating down the centrestream stable door for docos. Granted, Moore has his faults. He’s often a sloppy or stolid columnist and author, and a recovering Naderite. His forte is television (New Zealand’s conservative Deputy Prime Minister/Finance Minister Bill English confessed to me he was impressed with the “hilarious” The Awful Truth). Moore’s uncomplicated take lurches off in Sicko and Capitalism: A Love Story. But W. Bush and his administration deserve muckraking polemic. Innovating documentary cinema’s persuasive formal powers, Fahrenheit 9/11 nimbly synthesises W’s outrages. Far from the idiot left’s Loose Change “truther” lunacy, Moore audaciously articulates a reasonable opinion. Likewise Bowling for Columbine is, essentially, salutary counterweight. An oafish Munchener in Wheel of Time, Herzog unleashes on Antarctica like Omar on Stringer in Encounters at the End of the World. Here his “ecstatic truth” creative license is alright by me. Rarely is a grizzly, apocalyptic vision this poetic and oddly sublime. An Inconvenient Truth, Inside Job and Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room are must-sees.
Talk to Her (Pedro Almodovar, Spain, 2002)
Is there a more sensual filmmaker than Pedro Almodovar? With Javier Aguirresarobe’s cinematography and Alberto Iglesias’s music, Almodovar evokes Talk to Her’s various milieus: bedroom, bedside, bullring. His sublime cinematic palette serves complex, compassionate ideas. The Spaniard explores loneliness, love, and hope with eloquence, and, ultimately, transcendence. Journalist Marco and nurse Benigno keep vigil at the bedsides of the women they love. Dancer Alicia and bullfighter Lydia are in long-term comas, gored by a car and a bull respectively. Almodovar’s masterpiece is further leavened with humour, such as The Shrinking Lover short film. Talk to Her contains many indelible scenes: Lydia being gored in the bullring, Marco visiting Benigno in prison, and world-weary Marco struggling with the futility of his bedside vigil. Benigno has consoling words of wisdom. “A woman’s brain is a mystery, and especially in this state.” He tells Marco that, simply, he must “Talk to her.”