Friday, January 12
Adam Hartzell's Best New Films of 2006
Thanks, Adam for the perspectives on your year in cinema (not to mention your spandex promise). With nine of your ten picks being "of the patient pace" you prefer, and your top choice being an Apichatpong Weerasethakul film, perhaps it's appropriate to give a shout-out to the current Contemplative Cinema Blog-a-Thon being organized this month by HarryTuttle of SCREENVILLE. Though I may find time to contribute to this boundary-stretching event before January is over, in case I don't I'd just like to point to a piece I wrote a year and a half ago on a pair of contemplative films by James Benning.
As I write this, I am overwhelmed. Most of it has to do with the stress of my day job which has turned into the stress of a night job in a foreign land for the past two months. But another reason for my overwhelm can be found in the outside projects I bring on. I love reasoning with ideas and such is what leads me to my three other interests - writing, books, and film. Near the end of the year, I was asked to write a piece that became my priority task for the last two months. I’m always reading at least two self-assigned books (and various magazines) and have at least 10 books ready to be read. And there is always another film worth seeing in the San Francisco Bay Area and I spend much of my limited vacation time to catch films I’m concerned won’t make it out to SF.
All of these things take up a considerable amount of time to accomplish. As a result, I found myself recently saying aloud that sleeping and eating are 'inconveniences' to my getting everything done I want to get done. But then I see the every day poverty on my walk home and realize that’s my privilege talking..., and it needs to shut up.Looking back at my year in film through the scrapbook-y journal I keep to reflect on which were my favorites, I find that I saw 122 films in theatres, 48 DVDs, and 11 on Beta/VHS. And those are ones that were new to me, that I hadn't seen before. I did countless re-watching of films I'd already seen, mostly on DVD. For the past three years, my goal was always to see at least 10 a month, which I've accomplished again. But I'm not going to make that my goal next year, because my new year's resolution is to cut down on the projects so as to hold off this overwhelm where I have the power to hold it off. Such a schedule I've kept had me 'watching' such films as Eric Khoo's Be With Me and Hou Hsiao-hsien Café Lumiere too tired to really take in what was before me on screen, hence why they aren't on my list here and likely would be if I were better able to keep my eyes open during the screenings. I want to make the most out of every opportunity I have, but to do that, somewhat ironically, I have to have less opportunities. One needs time set aside for nothing for the experience of everything to seep in.
Which brings me to my list of films from 2006 (or 2005 that were finally made available for me to see this year.) With one exception, it is filled with films that are of the patient pace that I prefer, and know that I need. This year I'm going to try to learn from them and have my life be similarly paced when I have control of the speedometer.
10) WOMAN ON THE BEACH (Hong Sang-soo, South Korea 2006)
I can’t get enough of Hong. He is one of the few filmmakers I can watch over and over again. I never fail to find new interesting insights in the Hongian intertextuality of his films. As Filmbrain and others have commented, this film is an shift in his portrayals of women. The romantic triads that abound in his films are taken over this time by two women as endpoints confronting their rival suitor with similar bullshit and lying just as his men always have. Hong can fail me with any number of future releases since he’s already given me a life’s work to mull over. Two years in a row, I got to experience his films in a Korean multiplex, again at the MegaBox theatre at the Pusan International Film Festival, and the crowd’s response to his masterfully crafted humor added to the pleasure of his dramas of displeasure.
9. TEN CANOES (Rolf de Heer, Australia 2006)
One of two films in the languages of indigenous peoples I saw this year, part of me is simply happy such films were made. But they also greatly moved me, enabling me to give thanks for more than just that. Narrated with loving tongue-in-cheek by the great Australian actor David Gulpilil the film follows an Australian Aboriginal tribe in the infinite re-telling of a myth. I love how the recent history is told in black and white and the past in color, for as much as I love my present, some events from our past seem more vivid than the hours of today. I'm about to head to Australia, and I would have loved to watch this film amongst audiences there. But I checked it at PIFF when the chance arose.
8) INSIDE MAN (Spike Lee, USA 2006)
The only quick-paced film on my list, it's more special than just that since there are certain genres that I don’t tend to enjoy, and many such genres are utilized by Lee here in this film. So it says a lot of Spike Lee and his cast to get me to eventually buy the DVD of this film. I love the precise peppering of clichés from the various genres to not have me groaning but grinning. I don’t have the DVD with me, so I don’t know if this is a direct quote, but Denzel Washington’s character’s line 'I bet you have no trouble getting a cab, though?' still has me laughing as I type this. I caught it at the Presidio Theatre right after snagging some scrumptious Blue Moon Pizza and then some coffee from The Coffee Roastery to keep my ass awake. I quickly realized in the theatre that in the case of this film, I didn’t need the help of the coffee.
7) SOUND BARRIER (Amir Naderi, USA/Iran 2005)
Also taking place in the streets of New York, this film of limited dialogue but vibrant frenetic sound is deliberate delirium, like I remember those streets. The first half of this film takes place mostly in the claustrophobic confines of the cataloguing containers of old radio shows in a storage locker that our young deaf protagonist proceeds to destroy with a frantic fever. The film had me immediately engrossed from the first few minutes. Silence and sound crashing, ebbing and flowing, it was a nice mix of contemplation, hopelessness, fury and determination. The staff at PIFF have yet again turned my attention towards a director whose oeuvre I knew nothing about until they programmed it.
6) SISTERS-IN-LAW (Kim Longinotto United Kingdom/Cameroon, 2005)
Considering how difficult it still can be to see certain films one desperately wants to see in theatres (see Brian's wish list), I was dumbstruck that I had FOUR separate opportunities to see British documentarian Kim Longinotto's Sisters-In-Law this year. I caught it during the African film series at the Pacific Film Archive, who would bring it back for another opportunity to watch it along with Longinotto herself for a retrospective of her work. (Besides those two venues, it had a run at the Balboa and it was the opening film of the Women's Film Festival in Seoul that I attended this year.) This film that follows two women, a prosecuting attorney and judge, in Cameroon going about their days demonstrates how democracy and her justice are not easy. She cannot be streamlined to meet tightly controlled corporate timelines and profit margins. She is slow, messy, and, at times, frightening, which is what makes the eventual, and sadly often occasional, just conclusions and results all the more joyous and fulfilling.
5) SA-KWA (Kang Yi-kwan, South Korea 2006)
I am not a Christian, but this film is. And this film is much of what I cherish about Christianity from my friends who are and from my distant, author/teachers like Rev. Michael Eric Dyson or Rev. Cornel West. Sa-Kwa (which means both 'apple' and 'apology' in Korean) isn't about a marriage made in an antiseptic heaven, this is a marriage between two messy humans who have to muck around before they get it right. And getting it right will be realizing that they never will. Hence, they must learn about forgiveness. The ending is wonderfully ambiguous so that it can reveal the conclusion you need it to at the time of your viewing, making it a film that embraces an inclusive congregation. Thanks to the programmers at the 49th San Francisco International Film Festival for bringing this film to the Bay Area. You just might have helped, along with other festivals that advocated for it, push South Korean theatres to finally give it a release there.
4) THE DUELIST (Lee Myung-se, South Korea 2005)
At first glimpse, one might think this is another outlier of my patient film theme, but the slow drawn out dances of this martial mating ritual still fits within my frame. I know people have expressed disappointment in the lack of a 'story' here, but I find myself recalling the images long after my February screening. And it is the images that tell a more vivid story for me. In the feminized flourish of the male protagonist coupled with the masculine cuts of the female protagonist, the film presents a vision for mutual gender mutation that has slowly taken hold in South Korea. Yes, this is only a vision and doesn't intend to represent modern day reality anymore than it does its Chosun past. But we can't get anywhere without the vision first, and the vision isn't realizable without a seed and a fertile ground to plant it in. The gangster stroll of some South Korean films just doesn't hit me as hard as these gender role plays do. Thanks to the San Francisco Korean Film Festival staff for bringing this landlubber-swashbuckling spectacle to San Francisco.
3) THE JOURNALS OF KNUD RASMUSSEN (Zacharias Kunuk and Norman Colin, Canada 2006)
I have been away from snow for so long, that I had forgotten how it crunches beneath your feet. It took this film to remind me how packed snow feels almost styrofoamish under ones boots. The vastness of white snow made this perhaps the brightest film I've seen all year, a film definitely meant to be seen on a theatre screen rather than my television, where the light ironically envelopes you with a cold chill that strangely turns the movie theatre into a luminescent body rather than a dark cavern. The story is a simple one of Danish Christian missionaries bringing their religion to replace the beliefs of the Inuit peoples through subtle resource reserves if not through spiritual influence. Each crunch of snow represented a slow transition from one tradition to another. It is a sad, sad movie, but even sadder was that there were so few of us to fill the vast space of the Palace of Fine Arts to see this film late on a weekday night. But I hope my great appreciation for bringing the film here is enough solace for the programmers of the San Francisco Native American Film Festival.
2) CACHÊ (Michael Haneke, France 2005)
This film was on a lot of 'Best Of' lists last year, but it wasn't released in SF until early 2006. But now I can understand why it made those lists then. Fear holds when it's brought to viewers so cautiously, and this film reaches heights of suspense and loathing that few other films brought to me last year. The opening scene surveillance of self becomes a mirror to reflect on what we bring on ourselves from the pasts we brought onto others. The scene where our main character gets into a shouting match with a bicyclist is a wonderful demonstration of how ones false beliefs of righteousness in actions and words dissipate upon greater, deeper reflection. I caught this at the Lumiere this year, a theatre that has brought many films that demanded reflection during my 10 ½ years in SF.
1) SYNDROMES AND A CENTURY (Apitchatpong (aka Joe) Weerasethakul, Thailand 2006)
Right when the rush of festival films was getting bewildering for me at PIFF, I needed a film to re-position my state, and I knew Joe would deliver the medicine I needed, as do his doctors’ double-time in this country mouse/city mouse tale of..., well, I don’t really know. I don’t need to know, and I may never. I just need to set myself adrift sometimes like Joe’s camera as it floats around statues and corridors. We all knew the humor was there in the mass clumsy choreography of Jazzercise, but who would have thought there was such artistry, such transcendence? Well Joe of course. Joe sees things most of us don’t see. Thankfully, he’s a director who knows how to realize those sightings for the rest of us through cinema. Yes, Brian, I hope you and the rest of the Bay Area get to see this one too this year. I’ll bring my headbands and legwarmers to join you, but I’ll spare you the spandex.
I didn't value any of the three quite as highly as you did, but I did count Caché as a runner-up to my own, still-to-be-published top ten list. Definitely a film in which a seemingly neat metaphor actually increases the rippling complexity of its themes.
I had the kind of mixed feelings about Inside Man that warranted at least a second viewing, but unfortunately I couldn't fit one in.
As for Sa-Kwa, I'm afraid I gave it short shrift at the very tail end of the SFIFF (I literally raced from the screening, bypassing the q-and-a, to the Castro for the closing night film), but I remember liking it, especially for its insightful observation of the varying registers of familiarity we have for the people who we share varying degrees of closeness to. Another one that deserves a second viewing, for certain.
I generally like Spike Lee's films a lot, but found Inside Man my least favourite of his, though I admit it was superior within the genre. A repeat viewing could improve my appreciation, but I have little time for repeat viewings.
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