Dec. 21, 2001-
Corporate Film Still Sucks
By By Joel E. Siegel
I spent 2001 hiding from Hollywood, begging my editor to assign me independent and foreign films. The handful of mainstream commercial movies that I got stuck with turned out to be snoozers or stinkers: The Mexican, The Gift, Bridget Jones’s Diary, Evolution, America's Sweethearts, The Others, The Glass House, and Ocean's Eleven. But the 75 films I reviewed this year yielded more than enough non-Tinseltown productions worthy of inclusion in a 10-best list. Some of my selections might seem willfully obscure, but I'm confident that they will be remembered and enjoyed a decade from now.
Two choices stand out from the rest. The film I most admired was Iranian director Jafar Panahi's The Circle. Panahi combines episodes from the lives of an assortment of unrelated female characters to depict and indict the crushing constraints imposed on women from cradle to grave by fundamentalist Iran's repressive patriarchic laws and traditions. Almost entirely shot in actual locations, The Circle balances a neo-documentary style with its filmmaker's formalist strategies, including complex, extended camera movements, visual motifs, and thematic modulations. The Circle opens on a despairing note and grows increasingly depressive and, occasionally, excessively melodramatic. Its cumulative force is devastating. Although a difficult film to experiencewe watch appalled but powerless to alleviate the plight of women in a society immune to outside interventionThe Circle is a politically courageous and artistically resourceful achievement. Unsurprisingly, it was banned in its home country.
The Low Down, featured in the now-defunct Shooting Gallery series, is the movie that gave me the most pleasure last year. British writer-director Jamie Thraves' feature debut modestly depicts a few weeks in the lives of a circle of 20-something London friends caught in limbo between leaving college and making adult professional and personal commitments. Thraves presents a series of vignettes that, considered separately, would appear to be arbitrarily chosen, seemingly improvised slices-of-life: dinner-party conversations, workplace flare-ups, drunken pub crawls. But a pattern emerges from these apparently random moments that comes together in a poetic, open-ended denouement. Aidan Gillen never makes a false move as Frank, an art-school graduate unsatisfied with his life but uncertain how and where to begin changing it. Kate Ashfield is equally convincing as the soft-spoken, vulnerable real estate agent who tries to break through his inertia. Cinematographer Igor Jadue-Lillo's restless, often handheld camera becomes part of the action, an engaged participant rather than a detached observer. His airy images complement Thraves' freewheeling style, inspired by the early French New Wave films of Godard and Truffaut. Although small in scale and devoid of earthshaking themes, The Low Down is a little gem of a movie, as richly satisfying as a perfectly executed watercolor or poem.
English writer-director Terence Davies, who built his reputation with two dark, painstakingly wrought autobiographical mood pieces, Distant Voices, Still Lives, and The Long Day Closes, emphasizes pathos over social satire in his adaptation of the 1905 Edith Wharton novel, The House of Mirth, which mocked the self-indulgence and callousness of New York's upper classes while charting the irreversible decline of Lily Bart, a striking young woman lacking the means to survive in a milieu where money alone confers status. Davies conflates and, in some cases, omits some of Wharton's secondary characters, but his uncompromising style remains intact: measured pacing, formalized camera movements, painterly compositions, and protracted exploration of faces. Although Gillian Anderson lacks Lily's spellbinding beauty and occasionally struggles with Wharton's faithfully transposed dialogue, she connects with the character's plight so profoundly that, by the film's climax, she puts to rest reservations about her casting. Davies' austere style lacks the sparkle of the novel's prose, but viewers willing to adjust their inner clocks to his deliberate tempo will be rewarded with passages of uncommon emotional intensity.
After 36 years as a largely decorative screen presence, Charlotte Rampling emerges as a world-class actress in Under the Sand, an ambiguous French drama directed and co-scripted by François Ozon. Rampling plays Marie, a Parisian literature professor contentedly married for 25 years to an older intellectual. During a summer vacation, she awakens from a seaside nap to find that her husband has disappeared. Returning to Paris, she resumes her customary routine, refusing, despite friends' attempts to penetrate her denial, to accept his absence, imagining that he's still with her at the breakfast table and in bed. Trim and glamorous at 55, Rampling appears in nearly every shot. Photographed without makeup, often in silent close-ups, she embodies Marie's suppressed grief so eloquently that we're convinced we can read her thoughts. Ozon, one of France's most transgressive young filmmakers, curbs his customary impulse to shock in Under the Sand, leaving viewers with an enigmatic fadeout that compassionately declines to seal Marie's fate.
In When Brendan Met Trudy, his feature debut, Irish director Kieron J. Walsh, working from an original screenplay by novelist Roddy Doyle, revitalizes romantic comedy while paying homage to the filmmakers he admires. Trim, clean-cut Brendan (Peter McDonald), a shy, bored Dublin teacher, has two after-school obsessionssinging and cinema. His humdrum world turns upside down when, fresh from a choir rehearsal, he meet Trudy (Flora Montgomery), an effervescent young woman with a longshoreman's vocabulary and a taste for no-brainer American action pictures. United by sexual attraction but separated by taste, the pair embark on a rib-rattling erotic affair, overcast by Trudy's forced confession that she supports herself by robbing houses. Walsh rounds out this unusually lively comedy by intercutting and occasionally restaging scenes from Sunset Boulevard, The Quiet Man, Stagecoach, and other screen classics to illustrate how Trudy's volatile influence transforms Brendan's drab life into a thrilling real-life movie.
Spanish director Fernando Trueba defines the aim of his Calle 54 as "primarily to share a musical banquet with anyone who is ready for it." Trueba selected a dozen Latin jazz groups featuring musicians hailing from Brazil, Spain, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Argentina, and the United States, then shot complete performances, ranging from five to 10 minutes, in a New York studio. Backed by vibrantly colored cycloramas, these artists blend the musical traditions of their homelands (flamenco, samba, rumba, tango, mambo) with the improvisatory freedom of American jazz. The savory courses of this banquet range from virtuosic piano pieces by Michel Camilo and Chucho Valdés to uninhibited ensembles led by the late vibraphonist-timpanist Tito Puente, percussionist Orlando "Puntilla" Ríos, multireed player Paquito D'Rivera, and composer Chico O'Farrill. One of the most satisfying music films ever made, Calle 54ends with a touching sequence, a lyrical piano duet by Valdés and his father, Bebo Valdés, reunited after a five-year separation.
Compulsively gripping and artfully crafted, George Butler's documentary The Endurance: Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition, based on Caroline Alexander's 1998 best-selling book, is indebted to the work of another filmmaker for much of its impact. Frank Hurley, hired by explorer Ernest Shackleton to record his 1914 mission to cross the Antarctic continent on foot, shot still photographs and silent footage that Butler incorporates to achieve an otherwise unattainable sense of realism. Butler tints and blends these images with contemporary footage of Antarctica, paintings, drawings, and other graphic material, in a collage technique mirrored by the narration, thoughtfully spoken by Liam Neeson and interspersed with other actors' readings from the ship's logs, and the crew's letters and journals, along with reflections by the seafarers' descendants. Although The Endurance documents a failed quest, it celebrates the triumph of courage and ingenuity in the face of almost unimaginable obstacles.
Sexy Beast, the first feature by British director Jonathan Glazer and the screenwriting team of Louis Mellis and David Scinto, offers a fresh, fast-paced, darkly funny twist on a classic underworld plot, filled with double and triple crosses and capped by a sardonically clever coda. English gangster Gal Dove (Ray Winstone), retired to a hillside home on Spain's Costa del Sol with his adoring ex-porno-star wife, is startled by the sudden appearance of Don Logan (Ben Kingsley), a psychotic former criminal associate dispatched by a gangland boss to bring Gal back home for one more job: a complicated bank heist. Gal's resolute refusal results in an explosive showdown that leaves him no option but to return to England. Glazer employs the technical skills he's refined in making commercials and music videos to visualize the screenplay's contrasting worlds of good and evil: the sunstruck Spanish coast and London's shadowy underbelly. Although the movie's moral scheme is allegorically simple, its presentation is quite sgphisticated, a state-of-the-art display of stylized camerawork, dynamic editing, and inspired acting.
Thirty-three-year-old Thomas, the protagonist of Thomas in Love, French director Pierre-Paul Renders' futuristic comedy-drama, is an agoraphobe who has not left his apartment, or permitted anyone to enter it, for eight years. He communicates with the outside world through his "visiophone"a combination Internet monitor and video telephone. Among others, he interacts with his worried mother, his disability insurance agent, his psychiatrist, and a compu-porn animated Web site. At the insistence of his shrink, he logs on to an Internet dating service and has a fling with an eccentric young woman. (The pair don cybersex stimulation suits.) After this potential relationship tanks, Thomas reluctantly submits to his insurance man's suggestion that he take advantage of a government-run prostitution Web site. There he encounters lovely, melancholy Eva (Aylin Yay, in a knockout performance). Stalking her through cyberspace, he discovers that she shares his fear and alienation, and she tempts him to return to the real world. Until the film's final shot, we are restricted to seeing only what Thomas observes on his visiophonea strategy that imposes a number of technical challenges. Renders and screenwriter Philippe Blasband turn these restraints to their advantage, creating a one-of-a-kind movie that satirizes evolving communication technologies while developing a narrative that subtly darkens from comedy to pathos.
Although English writer-director Christopher Nolan won kudos for Memento, a thriller told backward, I was more impressed by his 1998 debut feature, Following, which premiered in D.C. in 2001. Unlike the startling opening shots of Memento, which establish Nolan's inverted time line, Following's early sequences are deceptively straightforward. Bill (Jeremy Theobald), a scruffy, unemployed would-be writer, spends his idle days shadowing strangers. Well-dressed, self-assured Cobb (Alex Haw), aware that he's being tailed, confronts Bill, reveals that he's a burglar, and invites his stalker to accompany him on his next job, the robbery of a woman's apartment. Subsequently, Bill encounters and falls for the same woman, a gangster's moll. At this point, Following begins twisting time into pretzel knots. Nolan gradually exposes a sinister subtext underpinning Bill's story, in which the hapless slacker discovers that he's become an unwitting pawn in a more insidious plot than he could possibly invent or imagine. Shot in 16 mm black-and-white on 20 weekends spaced over a year, Following relies too heavily on musty contentrecycled '40s film-noir clichésbut Nolan's masterful technique keeps trumping our expectations until the final frame.
Honorable mentions: Henry Bromell's Panic, featuring William H. Macy as a 40ish hit man in the grip of a midlife crisis. Pawel Pawlikowski's Last Resort, about a Russian expatriate and her young son seeking political asylum in a decaying British seaside resort. Dominik Moll's With a Friend Like Harry, a sub-Hitchcockian thriller about a murderous sociopath who invades the lives of a middle-class family. Scott McGehee and David Siegel's The Deep End, an inferior but absorbing remake of Max Ophüls' 1949 The Reckless Moment. Brad Anderson's Happy Accidents, an offbeat, time-tripping romantic comedy. Michael Cuesta's L.I.E., about a disaffected adolescent's relationship with a pedophile in a Long Island suburb. And three films that premiered at this year's Reel Affirmations festival: Sebastien Lifshitz's moody, erotic Come Undone, Todd Stephens' picaresque comedy-drama Gypsy 83, and Susan Seidelman's frothy gender-bending farce Gaudi Afternoon, featuring a deliciously cranky Judy Davis.
Some memorable performances: Catherine Deneuve's luminous, world-weary turn as a jeweler's widow in Place Vendōme. Clive Owen's and Helen Mirren's star power in the otherwise formulaic comedy Greenfingers. Child actress Kelly Endresz Banlaki's sensitive work as a '50s Hungarian refugee in An American Rhapsody. Robert Forster and Donnie Wahlberg's ebullient teamwork in Diamond Men. And Stockard Channing's and Julia Stiles' dynamic jousts for dominance in The Business of Strangers.
In a year that began with the bad vibes of the presidential election and got progressively worse, I don't want to contribute to the pervasive gloom by concluding with a list of lousy filmsexcept to say that Jacob and Josh Kornbluth's misbegotten Haiku Tunnel, the worst movie I've seen in 35 years as a reviewer, is to be avoided at all costs. CP