Here's my promised list: 25 films in 20 entries, allowing for five ties. I've made it somewhat different from my Village Voice ballot and my forthcoming Chicago Reader list by changing some of the ground rules: The only criterion for inclusion is a public screening somewhere in the United States, and the order is strictly alphabetical rather than hierarchical. I've appended comments to each entry, including some remarks about performances (good idea, Tony) and some responses to other comments. Tony's point that more films are becoming easier to see, at least on DVD, is well taken; this means that most (if not all) of my choices will be obtainable that way in the coming year, if they aren't already.
Café Lumière and Fear and Trembling. Two first-rate alternatives to the dubious Lost in Translation, both showing how one can view Japan from a foreign viewpoint with some nuance and a bit more sensitivity than simple class blindness. Politesse isn't the issue. Though I've yet to find a Japanese person who can bear Sofia Coppola's film, I don't know if Alain Corneau's even more unflattering Stupeur et tremblement—about the suffering of a Belgian woman (Sylvie Testud) working for a corporation in Tokyo and trying to conform to the local protocol—has even shown in Japan. One can be sure that Hou Hsiao-hsien's Café Lumière has been, because it's a Japanese-Taiwanese coproduction, commissioned to celebrate the centennial of Yasujiro Ozu's birth, and because Hou is quite popular in Japan. Hou, born a couple of years after the end of Japan's occupation of Taiwan, obviously has complex feelings of his own about Japanese culture, and some of these are expressed in the interviews on the excellent DVD of Café Lumière.
Testud, whose character speaks Japanese fluently, had to take a crash course in the language and then partially learn her lines phonetically, and this isn't the only reason why her performance is one of the best of the year.
The weight of the film's story is actually on her shoulders, and she meets the challenge deftly. Both these films were finished the same year as Coppola's, 2003, though as Scott cogently shows, our country is currently the boondocks when it comes to showing much interest in the world outside, so two years after completion has become a normal delay in showing some foreign or experimental fare.
Capote and The Squid and the Whale, two cautionary literary parables about what it means to be a writer. Yes, David, Capote does give Truman a raw deal when it claims he never finished another book after In Cold Blood. (What about Music for Chameleons?) And Jonathan Baumbach may also get a raw deal from Noah—though for my taste, there's nothing more chilling in The Squid and the Whale than the mother's uncontrolled laughter when her ex (the superb Jeff Daniels) pathetically tries to suggest a reconciliation. For the record, I know the mother (Georgia Brown, well-played by Laura Linney) as well as Noah, and I've heard that she loves the movie. The authenticity of the expressed pain of all the family members is so palpable that I'm not sure if anyone else can actually love this movie, but there's plenty to admire here. And Philip Seymour Hoffman's Capote—the most impressive performance of the year in my book—works so integrally with the screenplay (Dan Futterman) and direction (Bennett Miller) that we ultimately have to credit all three for their moral indictment of Capote's careerism (not his writing per se) and how it helped to destroy him.
Delamu—which I saw almost a year ago in Rotterdam, and which played here at the San Francisco Film Festival—is probably, along with Ten Skies, the least-known item on my list, though it would be commonplace to call its director, Tian Zhaungzhaung (The Horse Thief, The Blue Kite), the greatest of China's Fifth Generation filmmakers. Delamu is a thrilling and gorgeous documentary about the highest and most dangerous of the country's ancient trade routes and some of the people Tian meets on it, as well as the mule that gives the movie its title. It was only completed in 2004, so with luck it might get some more big-screen venues here in 2006. (On smaller screens, its monumental aspects are bound to suffer.)
Hal Hartley's The Girl From Monday isn't very well-known either, but it should be. The movie is a deadpan science-fiction satire shot in DV about the "dictatorship of the consumer" in which citizens carry bar codes on their wrists and are considered "investments with growth potential," especially when they have sex, and I loved it for its sweetness as much as for its erotic charge, not to mention its frenetic visual style.
A History of Violence. Deservedly the most popular movie on my list—above all for Cronenberg's consummate mastery in unpacking our ambivalence, as aided and abetted by Viggo Mortensen, Maria Bello, and Ed Harris. In his first letter, David places this in the "Revenge With a Guilty Conscience Genre," but I must say, in keeping with my boredom with this topic, the closer the movie got to revenge as a theme (especially all the stuff with William Hurt, which I found anticlimactic), the less interested I became. But considering the centrality of revenge to our culture (if we have a public discourse, I suppose this is it), I can't really say that I'm proud or happy about my waning interest. Maybe we should chalk it up to my having grown up in Alabama, where one imbibes revenge plots along with one's daily grits.
Howl's Moving Castle. Unlike David, Tony, and Scott, I haven't been able to see this subtitled and probably won't be able to until the DVD comes out in April. Philosophically, Hayao Miyazaki's animated fantasy gave me more to chew over than any other movies on my list, and some of its dreamlike vistas were as uncanny as those in Delamu.
Lord of War and Homecoming, two direct and angry political reflections on the kind of monstrousness we tend to tolerate and live with every day. Andrew Niccol's well-written tale about an arms dealer (tartly played by Nicolas Cage, who was also one of the producers) shares with Munich a desire to work both sides of the street—appeal to the more sordid side of our appetite for action-adventures while attempting to show us how sordid we are for doing so. To my taste, Niccol carried this off with more wit, imagination, and originality than Spielberg—though I hasten to add that, having just read Roger Ebert's interview with the latter, I find Spielberg's rebuttals to his hyper-Zionist critics far more intelligent, moral, and eloquent than anything they can find to say against him. Homecoming—Joe Dante's deliberately obvious direction of Sam Hamm's horror allegory for Showtime about our squandering of American lives in Iraq—was very nicely described by David in his first letter.
Me and You and Everyone We Know, Miranda July's first feature, is a perky, sad comedy about everyday solipsism and loneliness. It stayed with me in spite of what sometimes seems like an expedient compulsion to work over the public's nervousness about sex with giddy taboo-breaking. Come to think of it, The Squid and the Whale has that trait too, for better and for worse.
Michelangelo Antonioni's Michelangelo Eye to Eye and Guy Maddin and Isabella Rossellini's My Dad Is 100 Years Old—two very singular shorts that I would bet most readers haven't even heard about. Rather than try to synopsize the Antonioni here, let me direct readers to my online description at www.rouge.com.au/4/antonioni.html. The latter film—Madden's supple mise en scène of Rossellini's heartfelt yet highly ambivalent effort to "place" her troublesome father Roberto in terms of film history, which she wrote, and in which she plays all the parts, including such figures as Alfred Hitchcock and David O. Selznick—will most likely turn up as a DVD bonus (I've heard that Criterion's Open City is a distinct possibility). I'm less confident that the Antonioni, which needs a big screen almost as much as Delamu, will find as happy a resting place.
Alain Resnais' exquisite and lush Not on the Lips (2003) adapts a 1920s operetta, with many of the best actors in French cinema singing in their own voices (including Lambert Wilson as a hilariously puritanical American businessman, who sings the title tune, and the wonderful Isabelle Nanty, who hankers for him) and Resnais directing them with fragrantly anachronistic echoes of 1950s MGM musicals. As far as I know, this played on big screens this year only (and briefly) in Chicago, around the same time it came out in DVD, so it's readily available, but few people are aware of its existence.
Or (My Treasure), Karen Yedaya's 2004 Israeli feature, is another film that gave me more insights into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than Munich, even though it's mainly about a mother-daughter relationship. But it's also about the relations of both women to men, and the incidental reflections of war on behavior are devastating.
Play. A first feature from Chile by Alicia Scherson, packed with ideas and pirouettes, that gave me enormous amounts of pleasure both times I saw it. It showed at both the Tribeca and Chicago film festivals, won a prize at the former, and is still making the festival rounds. Since it's dated 2005, it may reach us on DVD in 2006 or 2007.
Saraband and Match Point. I've never been very happy with the content of either Ingmar Bergman or Woody Allen, one of his major disciples, but both came through with efforts this year whose stylistic finesse helped me to swallow their content a lot more than usual. Bergman's hate-fest was shot on video, and his relative contempt for that medium gave Saraband a special kind of bareness and directness. Match Point, a superb exercise in storytelling, is said by many of my colleagues to be inferior to Crimes and Misdemeanors, but I find the narrative economy in this case far more compelling (as well as erotic—for me a first in an Allen feature). But both films suffer from the same flaw—an inability to sufficiently imagine or care about the female victim, exacerbated in this case by Allen's inability to define her coherently in class terms. (The furnishings of Scarlett Johansson's second apartment in the film, books and all, are completely unbelievable.) Glad you like it too, Tony.
The Sun (2005) is the first film by Aleksander Sokurov that ever made me laugh, and its subtle, whimsical curiosity about the Japanese emperor Hirohito at the end of World War II reminded me of Roberto Rossellini's curiosity about the title hero of The Rise of Louis XIV (1966). Visually, this is a stunner, though that's nothing new for Sokurov.
Ten Skies is one of the three features by the masterful experimental filmmaker James Benning that's been circulating lately, but the only one that made it to Chicago. (The other two—13 Lakes and a shot-by-shot remake of Benning's 1977 One Way Boogie Woogie, using the same people and locations—have already turned up on European TV, and I haven't yet seen them.) Ten Skies is exactly what the title says; each shot is 10 minutes long and endlessly fascinating.
Three Times (2005). I'll need to look at Hou Hsiao-hsien's latest feature a second time before I can begin to sort out most of what it's doing. But its three dissimilar parts already look like a grand summary of his best work as well as a fascinating "remake" of his Taiwanese trilogy (City of Sadness, The Puppetmaster, and Good Men, Good Women). It confirms the impression fostered by his previous film, Café Lumière, that he's finally emerged from the sterile doldrums of Millennium Mambo (2001).
Tropical Malady. Each of Apichatpong Weerasethakul's three Thai features to date are remarkable, beautiful, and wholly unlike the other two. This one is a gripping piece of magical realism, and a gay love story that puts Brokeback Mountain and its tortured characters (despite a fine performance by Heath Ledger) to shame.
Michael Almereyda's William Eggleston in the Real World juxtaposes the master photographer's mistrust of words with Almereyda's special way with words—creating a tension that reminds me of Walker Evans' photographs bouncing off of James Agee's prose (and vice versa) in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.
Jia Zhangke's The World, my favorite on this list, focuses on the alienation of workers in a kitsch theme park outside Beijing and the fantasies of liberation entertained by one of them, a showgirl (Tao Zhao, stupendous). I had a chance to encapsulate what I love about this film when Ron Mann invited me to narrate the Canadian trailer (www.filmswelike.com/pages/world_trailer.html), also included on the new U.S. DVD of the film released by Zeitgeist. I see it as the best global newspaper handy at the moment.
Finally, Sally Potter's Yes. Yes, Tony and Scott, I know from your reviews that you abhor this film, another global newspaper, a lot more than I dislike Munich—although I'll never forget your open-minded generosity, Scott, in interviewing Potter for the L.A. Weekly after you trashed the film in Variety. So, this is a matter of taste: What sets some people's teeth on edge enlightens and gives pleasure to some others. Given that I have my doubts about the artiness of some of Potter's other films (excluding her underrated and unavailable The Gold Diggers), I was mainly unprepared for the graceful artfulness here—not just of her rhyming couplets to describe the adulterous affair between an Irish-American scientist (Joan Allen) and a Lebanese surgeon (Simon Abkarian) working as a cook, but also of these two actors plus Shirley Henderson (as a cleaning lady), and especially Sam Neill (as the scientist's husband), delivering them—not to mention the film's busy visuals. I was gratified to hear last night from my friend and favorite film academic, Jim Naremore, who's also a big Joyce enthusiast, that A) the film's now out on DVD, and B) having caught up with the film on DVD, he basically agrees with me. I hope some of you out there—including David, if you haven't seen the film—might travel the same route. Harking back to Capote, The Squid and the Whale, the Eggleston movie as well as Yes, this was a movie year that gratified the ear as well as the eye.