Wednesday, February 8


And Now: the Best New Films of 2005

In between all the film festivals and events happening right now, just thought I'd squeeze out a post that's been long in coming. I already ran down my favorite filmgoing experiences of last year, but avoided talking about "new releases", knowing that I had submitted such a list to Senses of Cinema's World Poll which was still in the pipeline. Here's that list; forgive me for the gimmcky presentation; it's just that the question of documentary vs. fiction filmmaking was a real and major theme of my cinematic exploration last year.

More excitingly, I have the honor to present an end-of-year wrap-up by a friend and fellow cinephile from my neighborhood, Adam Hartzell. Adam is a contributor to the excellent resource and to greencine daily, and is a much more well-travelled moviegoer than I, attending out-of-town film festivals every year. So it speaks well of local film programmers that eight of his top ten were films you or I could have seen on a Frisco screen last year.

Without futher ado, here's Adam:

To make it on my Top Ten, the film had to be released in the past few years and found itself on a screen in my vicinity in 2005. I saw 126 films new to me in the theatres in 2005. (Some of these were first time viewings of old school films and, thus, out of the running. But some of the highlights of those films were Carmen Santos's Sangue Mineiro (Brazil, 1929), R.D Pestonji's Country Hotel (Thailand, 1957), Lee Man-hee's The Starting Point (South Korea, 1967), and Masuda Toshio's The Velvet Hustler (Japan, 1967).) I chose to see these films within the confines of choices made by other people, e.g., retrospective curators, distributors and theatre owners. To give you an idea of the films I avoid, I never ended up seeing the trilogy of the third installment of the trilogies Lord of the Rings, The Matrix, or Star Wars. And to give you an idea of the films I seek out, in 2005, I traveled to Udine, Italy to see Park Chul-soo's Green Chair and Busan, South Korea to see Hur Jin-ho's April Snow and Nobuhiro Yamashita's Linda, Linda, Linda. So based on the choices I had available to me, choices enabled by some well-planned vacations, here are the best choices I made.

10) THE SQUID AND THE WHALE (Noel Baumbach, USA 2005)

I think I can fairly say that I'm not feeding delusions by saying that the father and eldest son here are not me, but I sure could relate to the often ignored plot element of driving around forever looking for parking. For that reason alone, this film could have easily been placed in San Francisco without missing a beat. The opening tennis match will remain a classic scene for me. We knew the characters immediately - point, set, and match. Although I've heard the "It's very Kafkaesque" joke before, I laughed yet again. This was the quirky film I needed on another dreary day during San Francisco's rainy season. Big Thanks to the Opera Plaza Theatres for providing me shelter from the rain and to Peet's Coffee too since someone finally opened up a coffeehouse nearby that stays open into the late evening.

9) BEYOND OUR KEN (Pang Ho-Cheung, Hong Kong 2004)

It didn't start off well. I was told by one of the volunteers that I'd sat in the wrong seat and he instructed I move. The seat I sat in was reserved, but not for me. When I moved to a seat closer to the stage, I began to feel this buzz in the air. I would learn soon that all the Italians were anxiously anticipating the arrival of Italian pop star Gianna Nannini about whom I knew nothing, but was to find out from the English translation provided on stage that a song by Nannini would be featured in Beyond Our Ken that figured as director Pang Ho-Cheung's inspiration for the film. And what a lovely little twisting film it was. Italian style as envisioned by this Hong Kong director whose film AV, which I'd seen a few days before, led me to believe, well, that Pang was a hack. I stand corrected. Great performances by Gillian Chung and Tao Hung helped this mystery about the strange companionship taken up by an ex- and present girlfriend of the same boy become one of my more memorable cinematic experiences this year at the Teatro Nuovo in Udine, Italy.

8) KAMIKAZE GIRLS (Nakashima Tetsuya, Japan 2004)

Take two at the Teatro Nuovo and again it's a story about an unlikely friendship. This film was just crazy fun. Although I prefer the slow-paced, artsy films, I can enjoy my spectacle just as much as the next film geek. The two fast friends are played to full special effect by Fukada Kyoko and Tsuchiya Anna. Juxtaposing a Rocco-obsessed, baby-doll-dressing, Japanese teen girl with an equally, fashion-plated, female Yakuza in scooter-wheeled training was just zany enough to work. This could have veered out of control but Nakashima takes us on several, bizarre, tangential courses while still returning us to the central theme of the film - friendship. The film takes Japanese teen expression through fashion seriously and has fun, but never ridicules. For once, a film I desperately wanted to receive a release in the States actually did.

7) A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE (David Cronenberg, USA 2005)

Cronenberg tends to freak me out. But he doesn't freak me out as if he's pummeling me with violent visuals or grotesque graphics just for the sake of pummeling. There has always been a message and method for getting his freak on and his film Crash definitely solidified that for me. His latest installment is many things, but foremost for me it is pedagogy on human desires. As much as some of us might like to think we're incapable of violence, there's a history lying back there in all of us of possible acts committed if not actually enacted. And Cronenberg keeps mining our collective Id for all it’s worth. I caught this later than the average cinema bear, waiting to see it at the 4 Star with Brian at a completely packed house on Christmas because it seemed nicely sacrilegious to do so. (I also caught the first Orthodox Jewish film, Ushpizin, at a Saturday matinee for the same reasons.) But I definitely saw what all the fuss was about, along with the importance of theatres like the 4 Star and the crowds that love them.

6) GOOD NIGHT, AND GOOD LUCK. (George Clooney, USA 2005)

I'd love to say 'Good Riddance' to McCarthy-ism, but sadly it's alive and well in the wiretappin' US of A. So this film provided further opportunities for me to reflect on how much does and doesn't change here. The choice for black and white was perfect in juxtaposing McCarthy's own words against the film and against us, resembling the conversations some of us have with TV pundits now. (OK, yelling at Bill O'Reilly's outlandish statements is not really a conversation.) David Strathairn provided one of my favorite performances this year, along with Philip Seymour Hoffman in Capote, rounding out a film that didn't drag for me one bit. Well, it's a drag that this same old, same old refuses to die. But the presence of a considerably packed crowd at the Embarcadero Theatre during a matinee after work gave me some hope.

5) HOST & GUEST (Shin Dong-il, South Korea 2005)

I'd just be repeating myself with what I've already written here, so let me just say how nice it was to watch this film in a South Korean multiplex in Busan. If only every visit to a multiplex could bring such enlightenment.

4) GRAIN IN EAR (Lu Zhan, China and South Korea 2005)


3) VODKA LEMON (Hiner Saleem, Armenia, France, Italy, and Switzerland 2003)

This is such a simple parable with little dialogue and little scenery, yet sometimes the simple stories are the best ones. From the very beginning of the absurd opening scene of a village elder being dragged in his bed on route to a funeral through the icy roads, I knew I was in for a treat and the film's patient pace refused to disappoint. The crunch of the snow underneath the feet of these characters, the bodily defenses they engage in to protect themselves from the cold, all underscored a general theme of surviving in less hospitable climes. I love the Balboa theatre, but sometimes it is cold in the winter, and occasionally that temperature works perfectly with the film on screen.

2) NOBODY KNOWS (Kore-eda Hirokaz, Japan 2004)

This made a lot of critic lists last year, but I didn't get to see it until the beginning of 2005. Could a film get any sadder? But this wasn't melodrama mania. This was the kind of sadness that comes with intimacy, getting to know characters gradually so when tragedy strikes, you are not shocked into horror, you simply grieve along with the characters. Kore-eda is to film what Sigur Ros is to music. For some time now, Kore-eda has been exploring our reception of the deaths that surround us. Nobody Knows continues this exploration to show us what happens when we ignore the slow deaths around us that simple interventions could rescue. Instead, these kids find their own way to survive, demonstrating the paradox of human ingenuity that keeps us together and alienated at the same time. Big thanks to the Lumiere Theatre for providing me a safe place to let the tears drop.

1) THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERATOR (Caroline Martel, Canada 2004)

Although all the films listed here, (and many not listed), had an impact on me, none had as much of an impact as Montreal-born director Caroline Martel's montage experiment The Phantom of the Operator. The film explores the history of women operators, but it's so much more than that. Through a whispering French narration and creative use of industrial videos and other ephemera, Martel motivates us to rethink the part women have played in the telecommunication revolution, and all that still lies hidden behind every revolution. Her avant-garde approach is accessible even to this kindergartner within that school. Full disclosure might require me to note that I've worked in a phone center for the past 7 1/2 years. But one need not have worked in the industry to appreciate what Martel observes here. Martel schooled me in more ways then one, as all great documentaries do, but she also brought an artful respect to this topic, showing the beauty along with the disturbing, that transcends the topic while underscoring her themes at the same time. The Pacific Film Archives at the University of California, Berkeley rocks my world yet again. I saw my two favorite films from 2004 there, (A Certain Kind of Death and Invisible Light), and yet again they screened my favorite film of 2005.

Well there you have it. I'm sure Adam will be happy to address any comments you might have if you click the "comments" link below.

Here's where I admit I've only seen four of your top ten, Adam. I missed Beyond Our Ken at the SFIFF and Vodka Lemon there and at the Balboa. I wanted to see Phantom of the Operator when it played with the Time We Killed at MADCAT at the Yerba Buena Center, but all the tickets had sold before I could buy mine. I still haven't gotten around to Good Night, and Good Luck. yet, and I hope the two Korean films come to Frisco in 2006.

As for the four I did see, a History of Violence was my film of the year. As much as I love Cronenberg's "body horror" films, I rank this with the best of them. Overcoming a rather average graphic novel, Cronenberg masterfully laid out a hermetic universe in the shape of this small town, the perfect arena for him to grapple with ideas about human identity, genre, the relationship of actor to audience, and according to many critics the current political climate in this country. I'm not so sure how far I go along with this last theme; I tend to think Cronenberg has been stressing it in interviews because it gets him the most consistantly favorable reaction from the press and perhaps public. But I do think he's definitely made a film rich enough to be interpreted through a multitude of disparate readings.

Nobody Knows was also one of my top favorites. I put it on my "Best Documentary" list as part of the gimmick, but considering that the film is based on a real event it really does belong to the long tradition of "re-enactment" documentaries. It also serves as a document of the changes in these four young actors' looks and lives during the period of filming. It may not be journalism, but there's a kind of truth in it that journalism rarely achieves.

Kamikaze Girls I must admit I didn't really like that much. I enjoyed it on the level of a look into a subculture and into the wild imagination of the brains of its creators, and I was really enjoying it for about half an hour. But I didn't get the sense the makers cared nearly as much about making a good film as in getting their ideas out on camera, if you can see the difference. It was hard to sustain over a feature-legnth film.

Finally, I liked the Squid and the Whale but not as much as you it appears. I hadn't seen it yet when I submitted my lists to Senses of Cinema, but it wouldn't have quite made it even if I had. Certainly it's a well-made film with some frighteningly real performances. But the whole thing feels a little too pat, even though stylistically it seems to bend over backwards to appear not to be so. It probably didn't help that when I watched the film I was in the midst of reading Son of the Revolution, a memoir written by a newspaperman's son who grew up in Southern China during the Cultural Revolution, and it occured to me that Baumbach's film could perhaps be trotted out as propaganda if we ever had a real anti-intellectual uprising in this country.

Anyway, thanks for writing this up, Adam!

I'm sure I was positively influenced about A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE by the way you took out those punks robbing the theater when we were leaving. I mean, two punks with one shot?! I wasn't as aware of your past as I thought I was. I've grown hesitant to challenge your opinion on anything after that.

Everyone knows that NOBODY KNOWS is lovely. My co-worker, who is the opposite of you and I in that he couldn't care less about films, absolutely loved that film and thanked me for nagging him to go along with me.

KAMIKAZE GIRLS is my fun pick. I haven't had a chance to check it out a second time. But I loved the general craziness of it and the tweak on resolution. Plus, venues can have an effect on the experience of the film and the audience and theatre was just a buzz during and after the screening. Perhaps LINDA, LINDA, LINDA would have been a better film to place, but I hadn't reconciled the appropriateness of the narcolepsy in that film until well after I'd written my list.

As for THE SQUID AND THE WHALE, I loved the dialogue and the pro-intellectual humor (you have to be passionate about ideas to appreciate the humor in some of the jokes) keeps the anti-intellectual strains roped in for me. I have issues with the ending being formulaic, hence why it's the lowest of the films I rank, but I just loved the characterizations and the feel of the time.

And thanks for being interested in posting it.

Thanks, Brian, for sharing Adam's top ten. I'm hoping to meet up with you two at some point since we're fellow Bay Area film aficionados. I have a set of extra tickets to the "Japon / Battle in Heaven" Reygadas residency at Center for the Arts, if either of you are interested. If so, let me know.

I've only seen three of your top ten, Adam, but you can be sure I've made a mental note of the other seven! I admire your ability to even come up with a top ten; I've yet to be that discerning.

Kore-eda's "Nobody Knows" eschewed sentimentality. The highest compliment I can pay him is that I "almost cried" but didn't. Making his audience cry was not his intention and he succeeded masterfully. Making his audience think about throwaway children seemed his aim. Yet later, after the movie, my heart broke recalling detailed images: the nubs of crayon. The tattered shoes. The weight of adulthood on the shoulders of children.

I loved the black and white look of "Good Night, Good Luck" and the Reeves Grammy-nominated soundtrack, and was glad that Straithairn was provided an opportunity to flex his talent (as I've long admired him in supporting roles), but, all in all "Good Night, Good Luck" felt flat for me. I need to watch it a second time, I think.

What intrigued me about Cronenberg's "A History of Violence" is that it continues this theme that Cronenberg has been circumambulating about throughout his career: that within our bodies is something naturally horrifying. Originally he configured this as parasites, invasive technologies, what have you, and has finally reduced the theme down to its most basic. I actually appreciated that.
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