The Year and Decade in Review, Part 3

Features, FILM,
ALEXANDER BISLEY with eight great films (and two turkeys) from the last decade; STEVE GARDEN with the highlights and disappointments from the 2009 film festival season.

Alexander Bisley: I recall eight of the last decade’s great films, with a couple of turkeys thrown in for balance.

The Best Films of the Decade

Abouna (Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, Chad/France, 2002)

Abouna, Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s second, profound film, is easily better than Ozu and Kiarostami’s sometimes overrated work. It’s a rare, sophisticated insight into Africa: Wonderfully specific, yet universal. Translated as Our Father, 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 many superb scenes: from the shot of motherly tenderness towards Amine to the debate over the meaning of “irresponsible”, the epithet mum has given dad.

Encounters at the End of the World (Werner Herzog, USA, 2007)

Herzog unleashes. Rarely is a grizzly, apocalyptic vision this poetic and oddly sublime.

Fahrenheit 9/11 (Michael Moore, USA, 2004)

The decade’s Documentary Renaissance wouldn’t have happened without Michael Moore. Several leading, elegant documentary makers, such as Spellbound’s Jeff Blitz and Citizen King’s Noland Walker, have told me so. Michael Moore’s absolutism lurches off in Sicko and Capitalism: A Love Story, but George W. Bush and his administration demand polemic.  Fahrenheit 9/11, a scorching anti-Bush synthesis, is by turns damning, terrifically funny and galvanising. Enlisting cinema’s persuasive formal powers, Moore dynamically assembles a breathtaking record of outrages. He articulates complicated politics in an accessible and persuasive manner; concluding with a knockout, Orwell-inspired sequence that only The Wire has bettered.

In the Dark (Sergei 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 (Alexei German Jr, Russia, 2003)

Blazing with profound humanism and compassion, The Last Train is one of the greatest anti-war films ever made. Russian Alexey German Jr’s debut is riveting and startling from its opening shot, which brings to mind a Rembrandt portrait. German doctor Paul Fishbach (the magnificent Pavel Romanov) is a fat, awkward nobody drafted to Germany’s front with Russia during the last days of World War II. 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 an acute 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. Stunningly shot in black and white CinemaScope, the snowy, harsh environment is captured so vividly you feel it in your bones. The images capture like a vice to the head, complemented by the inventive soundscape of hacking coughs and other pitiless misery. Bach’s sublime music accompanies two key scenes. Fishbach has seen horrors. “Why is all of this happening?”

Moolaadé (Ousmane Sembene, Senegal, 2004)

Moolaadé, the last word from Senegalese director Ousmane Sembene, damn near perfected art as politics. The rousing film also recommends itself on purely aesthetic grounds.  Four little girls ask Colle (Fatoumata Coulibaly) for moolaade (protection) from “purification” (genital mutilation), which she grants them, despite the village’s chiefs uncompromising opposition. Moolaadé isn’t about allowing privileged audiences to celebrate their predetermined moral superiority and capacity to pity. Provocative and unpredictable, Moolaadé is full of life, vibrancy, girl-power and optimism. With the wit, fire and saw-toothed, egalitarian consciousness Sembene forged as an immigrant Marseille dockworker. Sembene’s belief in ordinary people’s daily heroism is palpable; Colle’s courage is quite inspiring. Sembene affectingly proves one can at once be a patriarch and a feminist. He’s scathingly critical of African sexism; he also nimbly pays tribute to the colourful, traditional charms of an African village. The remarkable mosque features in Moolaadé’s hopeful final image.

No Country For Old Men (Joel and Ethan Coen, USA, 2007)

Such command of cinematic technique wedded to such mighty content. The Coens capture the nihilism of our times, with a haunting performance from the peerless Javier Bardem. Only Woody Allen rivalled the Coens’ cinematic quantity and quality this decade. The Coens and Allen are consistently great, but No Country for Old Men has an emotional and philosophical edge.

Talk to Her (Pedro Almodocar, Spain, 2002)

Is there a more sensual filmmaker than Pedro Almodovar? Employing Javier Aguirresarobe’s cinematography and Alberto Iglesias’s music, Almodovar beautifully 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 extraordinary eloquence and grace. 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. Almodovar’s masterpiece is further leavened with humour, such as The Shrinking Lover short film. Talk to Her contains many indelible scenes: Lydia 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.”

Turkeys of the Decade

The Passion of the Christ (Mel Gibson, USA, 2004)

As represented by Bach, Jesus’s story is inspirational. Mel Gibson’s version is gratuitous, soulless torture. The Passion without explaining the passion, it’s as illuminating and enjoyable as watching a long autopsy or snuff movie.

Sex and the City: The Movie (Michael Patrick King, USA, 2008)

Beyond the palin: life as an unrelenting, crass orgy of consumerism.

The Ten Best Films of 2009

  • Disgrace (Steve Jacobs, South Africa, 2008)—Terrific adaptation of Coetzee’s masterpiece, with an uncanny performance from John Malkovich.
  • Samson and Delilah (Warwick Thornton, Australia)—Indigenous art at its most inventive, resonant and inspiring.
  • Still Walking (Hirokazu Kore-eda, Japan, 2008)—Family dynamics through beautiful, bittersweet Japanese minimalism.
  • 35 Shots of Rum (Claire Denis, France, 2008)—Claire Denis’ eloquent tribute to her mother and Brazilian grandfather.
  • Tyson (James Toback, USA, 2008)—Iron Mike opens up; Raging Bull Redux. Best documentary of the year.
  • District 9 (Neill Blomkamp, South Africa)—Caustic, pioneering satire accelerated with visceral action that hit the bullseye.
  • Lemon Tree (Eran Riklis, Israel, 2008)—Deft, humanistic take on the Palestine/Israel debacle, freighted by awesome actresses Hiam Abbass and hazel-eyed Rona Lipaz-Michael.
  • Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino, USA)—This decade’s The Sound of Music. Some QT excess, but uncommonly good pacing and tension, such as the opening and card game scene! Not to mention the outstanding academia jokes.
  • Slumdog Millionaire, Wendy and Lucy (Danny Boyle; Kelly Reichardt, 2008)—Poverty and hope dazzle through Bollywood fusion extravagance and American indie minimalism.
  • In the Loop, The Hangover, The Informant! (Armando Iannucci; Todd Phillips; Steven Soderbergh)—Exceptional funny bone, head and heart.  I laughed just as hard second time round.


Chulpan Khamatova in ‘Paper Soldier’

Steve Garden: As usual, the mid-year New Zealand International Film Festival proved to be the primary source of cinematic pleasure for me this year, and the film that continues to resonate most is Alexei German Jr’s Paper Soldier.

Other standouts were 35 Shots of Rum (second only to Paper Soldier), Jeanne Dielman, Birdsong, 24 City, Still Walking, Eccentricities of a Blond Hair Girl, Wendy and Lucy, Bluebeard, Modern Life, Treeless Mountain, Serbis, Un Lac, Limits of Control and Our Beloved Month of August.

Trailing in a tight pack behind the leading bunch: Dogtooth, Four Nights with Anna, Summer Hours, Van Dieman’s Land, Samson and Delilah, Blind Loves, Tulpan, Theatre of War, Mary and Max, Examined Life, Mid-August Lunch, Before Tomorrow, Enjoy Poverty, Moon, Che and Roger Horrocks’s Len Lye programme.

Lars von Trier’s Antichrist stands in a space entirely on its own. I’m fascinated by the reaction to this film, particularly the extent to which it has been dismissed by a large number of otherwise even-tempered critics—interesting.

I’m envious that Wellington got to see Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon. I expect it would have been one of my standouts had it screened in Auckland. Es ist Leben.

Disappointments: Broken Embraces, The Baader Meinhof Complex, In the Loop, Spies (Fritz Lang), Jerichow, Old Partner, Firaaq, Way of Nature, Double Take, A Christmas Tale, Disgrace.

At home in 2009 it has been patchy, but I made a determined effort over the early months to catch up on some of the many silent films I have in my ever-growing collection, most notably the very impressive films of Victor Sjostrom, better known as the central protagonist (Dr Isak Borg) in Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries. I also caught up with early Dreyer, Lang, Pabst, Feyder, Christiansen, Stiller, Vigo, Gance, and a handful of others. All good—well, patchy, but generally very good.

Other revelations throughout the year included Alain Resnais’s Muriel, Jacque Rivette’s The Nun, Jean-Luc Godard’s Un femme mariée and Michel Brault’s The Orders. Plus: H Story (Nobuhiro Suwa), In Public (Jia Zhang-ke), Night Train and Uniform (Diao Y’nan), Day Night Day Night (Julia Loktev), The Headless Woman (Lucrecia Martel), Ali Kaurismaki’s Lights in the Dusk, Import Export (Ulrich Seidl) and Fallen (Fred Kelemen)—all of which that have been curiously absent from our screens. Lastly, I have to put in a plug for Victor Kosakovsy’s hour-long gem from 1993, The Belov’s. If you haven’t seen it, seek it out. Terrific.