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Requiem for a Dream
The Gleaners and I
The Son
Twilight Samurai
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Keane
Inland Empire

BEST FILMS OF 2004
by Mike Lorefice


2046
Kar Wai Wong

***

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A Tout de Suite
Benoit Jacquot

Black and white New Wave style mood piece using crime, noir, and thriller elements as distinctively background elements for another of Benoit Jacquot's perceptive character studies of a young woman at the first crossroad in her life (The Disenchanted, A Single Girl). Lili (Isild Le Besco) is an ennui-ridden product of a broken bourgeois family, going through the motions at art school. Uncertain of what she wants from life beyond that it's something she doesn't have, she projects her desires upon an exotic Moroccan named Bada (Ouassini Embarek). Envisioning everything else to be better than it is, she's not taken aback when she quickly discovers he's a bank robber wanted for murder. Using daring to overcome her passivity, she quickly agrees to whatever he asks, putting him and his partner up and eventually joining the band of outsiders. Lili is more intelligent and willful than an Anna Karina character, but she's not particularly articulate, communicating largely through expression and gesture, while attempting to rely on her looks to overshadow her deficiencies. The entire film is Le Besco, and not surprisingly she completely pulls it off, which entails being off putting with the moping, brash, and indecisive nature of her character. Sex, like art and work are ways to pass the time, distracting her from her problem solving liabilities that render her languid. As usual, Jacquot's proclivity is to focus on common activities. His stripped down minimalism avoids action practically at all costs, downplaying the intrigue of running from the police as well as the fun vacation aspect of being on the road with a bag of loot, though the bits that are included also subtly show a naive confused girl trying to follow her heart but not serious enough about anything to know where it lies. The tension doesn't come from the other characters or the threat of capture, but rather the discrepancy between the way Lili sees her decisions and the audience views them. Caroline Champetier (who was Jean-Luc Godard's regular cinematographer before becoming Jacquot's) ironically films largely in closeup to capture all that's going on within Lili's mind; hoping the audience will better understand but still be mature enough to distance themselves from the stars actions. Still, Jacquot maintains an air of mystery in both good and bad ways. He doesn't force explanations upon Lili's restless, impulsive search for something that satisfies, but seems too easy on her in the last half hour given the pickle she's gotten herself into. A Tout de suite is based on Elisabeth Fanger's memoir, but things still come so easily for Lili even though she eventually works herself into a situation where they don't. Though it may be annoying that Lila is the only one who can't see where her actions are leading in the Ziad Doueiri's somewhat topically similar Lila Says, which gives the male side of the Arab/French romance, at least it's not completely whitewashed. [7/2/07] ***

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The Assassination of Richard Nixon
Niels Mueller

***

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Before Sunset
Richard Linklater

****

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The Bridesmaid
Claude Chabrol

***1/2

Changing Times
Andre Techine

Anyone who ever tried to recapture the heart of a woman who closed it to them can relate to this love story that reunites screen legends Gerard Depardieu and Catherine Deneuve. Andre Techine is in Francois Truffaut romantic mode, making a work that understands humanity and thus knows love can be creepy and baffling to anyone other than the lover(s), and maybe even to them. It's like Antoine decided to try to win back Colette after all these years, except that was early Truffaut and Techine is more in the conventional mode of Truffaut's disappointing later work. Antoine's (Depardieu) personal life halted when he broke up with Cecile (Deneuve) 31 years ago. His career flourished, and he'd be considered a success because he's got plenty of dough, but this was largely because he had nothing else to do with his time but think of Cecile while he worked. Cecile moved on in her love life, having two husbands and one son. She had a modicum of success hosting a radio show, but both are unfulfilled in their own ways. Through the ridiculousness of being so utterly petrified of rejection he just waited and waited, Antoine reenters Cecile's life at a time when she doesn't have much in the way of attachments and obligations to turn him down for. Her marriage to her much younger and totally unfaithful doctor husband (Gilbert Melki) is crumbling, and her son is all grown up. The unapologetic characters aren't very likeable, with Antoine's tactics regularly making the audience uneasy and Cecile being a cruel ice woman threatened by true love. Of course, through much contrivance she suddenly comes around to him. This solid comedy drama about the effects of time passing with everyone doing their part exposes Techine's typical story weaknesses because the style is far from memorable. There are a lot of asides to fill out the run time, which is not a bad thing. The thinness of Techine, Laurent Guyot, & Pascal Bonitzer's main story is certainly a weakness, and perhaps some of the back stories should have been expanded, but everyone is a product of their world so working in trials and tribulations, longings and desires, cultural and religious differences of the day adds depth and dimension. Depardieu is the best thing about the film, playing a character like his Cyrano minus the poetry and charm. His clumsy, uncomfortable portrayal of a man who has a hard time willing himself to act and can't find the words, but nonetheless puts himself in the path of the person he needs some affection from reminds us of what a great actor he was before he contracted Kinskiitis (affliction rendering the subject unable to decline any paying role). [1/4/07] ***

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The Chorus
Christophe Barratier

Amiable family film about a teacher underestimated because of other's prejudices who wins over troubled reform school youth with music and trust. The underrated comic actor Gerard Jugnot is spot on as the teacher, greatly elevating the proceedings. I cared about him and the students, about their circumstances, and there wasn't an overabundance of manipulation to get me to do so, the story is pretty well told even if it's predictable. The temptation to highlight the naughty children's shenanigans for entertainment is avoided, instead sticking to the teacher's methods of winning their confidence and respect. It's too much a good guy/bad guy deal with the liberal teacher vs. the fascist headmaster, the other workers of course seeing the light in a rather unconvincing fashion. This would be a great foreign film for kids if kids still watched foreign films (it's even one of the 1% that's not prohibited). On the other hand this kind of film getting a best foreign film nomination is one of the big reasons adults aren't watching them anymore. It's not really art nor an alternative just the better than American mainstream stuff (which is often mainstream in it's own country, in fact this film was a top grosser in France) the Weinstein's make money off while they continue to suppress many of the films that are artistic alternatives. It's another feel good film, similar to a number of recent Hollyplastic hits, though legitimately because unlike Hollyplastic it's not condescending to its audience. [9/25/05] ***

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Control Room
Jehane Noujaim

Important document of the media coverage given to the March 2003 US invasion of Iraq, perception being more important than reality, and the news being the birth of much of it. The focus is on Al Jazeera, the independent Arab news channel that believes in providing footage and allowing the audience to decide that hitherto was largely known in the US for it's "anti-Americanism" and "pro-Bin Ladenism". However, the documentaries value lies not so much in showing how they are different, we couldn't really tell without watching hours of it ourselves anyway, but in allowing us to compare and contrast their coverage to that of the "free" American media and a representative of an official source both have, a U.S. Army press officer. Quickly, we see what the rest of the world has known for years, that by relying on official sources our "news" is at best little more than what they'd like us to believe to be the truth, and at worst pure show business. Though Al Jazeera's journalists generally come off as much more intelligent and honest than what we are used to (at times they are also unbelievably naEe), they aren't so much used as the model of a news network, in fact they are often compared to Fox Fear in choosing what their target audience wants to hear over the reality of the situation, as to once again bring forth the fact that the "truth" lies in the teller. There's so many truths about the material in the film from so many angles, any number of bits could stand out. Maybe the thing to remember is they're all "objective". The director, by the way, is an Egyptian-American Harvard grad, though you'd have no idea from watching the film, the subtleness of her message being something to appreciate. Her editing style, gathering the bits and pieces and juxtaposing them so the viewer can make the decision on the truth, is what the news should be about. Though thankfully not an entertainment, there are some precious bits, like the a BBC reporter using a group of Iraqis chanting Bush as proof of pro American sentiment when in fact, if he could actually translate, they were cursing his very name. Control Room should be required viewing for voters across the world, but falls short of being a masterpiece because there are so many gaps that weren't filled in, the final piece, though technically proficient, is too brief and seems to be waiting for another series of scenes to be inserted. [9/25/05] ***1/2

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Fahrenheit 9/11
Michael Moore

****

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A Fond Kiss
Ken Loach

***1/2

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Le Grand Voyage
Ismael Ferroukhi

Communication is not improving through technological advance; everyone not only seems more isolated than ever, but reliant on distraction to mask their inability to sustain a dialogue. The incapacity to relate is even harder when generations of a family grow up not only in changed cultures, but completely different areas. This road movie focuses on a traditional Muslim father exiled in France and his Westernized non-religious youngest son who spent all his life there, thus having little connection to his culture or heritage. The son gets stuck taking his father for his hadj to Mecca, and though in many ways the film is the same as every other movie where two people are forced to spend time together, it's not about events, speeches, or making the characters likable. Both characters are stubborn and unfriendly, and there are long uncomfortable pauses rather than the usual bickering and wise cracking. The most telling character points are made through the two passengers that briefly join on the way, each lead has one they can't wait to get rid of because the passenger represents what they aren't, what they are skeptical of. Of course they come around to an extent, but for the most part the only hero is Islam itself, at least in terms of the directors goal of showing the peaceful majority rather than the radical minority the media has transformed into our image of the entire region. Stylistically the film owes a lot to Kiarostami, with the cameraman in the back seat, the leads improvising, location footage shot secretly, the importance of sound, and many details and specifics left to the imagination. Nonetheless it's far too formulaic to be a deserving festival winner, but it's interesting for exposing us to a world that's so different yet so similar to our own. [9/25/05] ***

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The Hand (segment of Eros)
Kar Wai Wong

Eschewing the perpetual pretentious camera movement to no end of In the Mood for Love and video game bombast of 2046, Kar Wai Wong crafts a more subtle, intimate, and sensual portrait of his classic theme of unrequited love. Christopher Doyle blocks the film to bring out their longing and the distance between them, the confined corridors allowing the relationship to live in whatever flat Miss Hua (Li Gong) is for sale in. Zhang (Chen Chang) is a timid introverted loner, just starting out as a tailor when he meets the star call girl. She tries to rid him of his shyness and nervousness, seducing him for the purpose of creating greater outfits that will lead to sex, with a paying customer. He creates her persona through the threads, but she's most alive in his imagination. Settling for being a paid servant of sorts, Wong captures the sadness of true love, or obsession depending upon your perspective. Longing for the impossible, even if neither exactly know why - Wong suggests Hua's openness to sex closes her to love - yields a high voltage erotic charge settling up a war between desire and restraint where they know emotion must be suppressed, but it's a genuine struggle. The story is pretty predictable with the prostitute unable to stay young, beautiful, and healthy forever, though that's her only chance to continue earning a good wage, the passage of time emphasizing the fact Zhang is the only one who truly cares for or about her. The performances are very credible beyond Gong looking much too beautiful to be so ill. Wong's emphasis is always on form though, the color shading helps slyly elucidate some of the interior emotion that's sublimated, expressed through the acting only when they're apart or shielded from each other's gaze. [7/28/07] ***

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Happily Ever After
Yvan Attal

The biggest asset of Yvan Attal is he has Charlotte Gainsbourg to enliven his films. Like My Wife Is An Actress, the film is about infidelity, though this time rather than being paranoid over the possibility of Charlotte's, Attal takes the lead and has an affair for no reason with a woman that doesn't measure up in any way. This pairing is not as good as Actress largely because Attal started by wanting to make a film about the three males (Alain Chabat and Alain Cohen are the other two). Gainsbourg's role really comes in later, as he follows her character after his affair to show her feelings on adultery - her conflict in whether she should confront him or have her own fling - which does complement Attal's conflict in Actress. Attal's take on the troubles of fidelity should be obvious, but actually is quite rare in a world where "entertainment" and advertising are virtually identical, their job to create inadequacy that can be miraculously cured by paying for some ridiculousness. He's one of the many guys that doesn't care about such and such a quality or feature; it's just same vs. different. The guys in his film are attracted to the other's wife/girlfriend and at least somewhat bored with their own, yet they can't imagine they'd get to that point if they had the other guy's girl. Where the film succeeds best is in maneuvering through the center, the area between being fully committed and ready to break up that movies rarely navigate credibly because they are always stuck in a plot arch that calls for them to ascend to the former and soon descend to the later. Children play an important role in the proceedings, as Attal wants to live up to the standard set by previous generations, including his parents (Claude Berri & Anouk Aimee making cameos), who have been married for forty years and can communicate without words rather than leave his child among the displaced majority. Some of this may be lost though, as most viewers interpret the wordless dinner as the duo having nothing to say to each other, probably because they are more experienced than the filmmaker. In any case Attal the actor's conflicted character purposely contradicts Attal the director's point for most of the film, always going off somewhere and leaving Gainsbourg home to baby sit. Attal is an observant writer who succeeds pretty well as a moralist without being unrealistic or puritanical. He is far weaker as a director, especially getting himself into trouble by trying to be Scorsese lite with pretentious use of dud music and virtuous camera movements that don't really fit or usually even quite work. The best thing about his directing is pulling off a few scenes that suggest one night stands but reveal themselves to be nothing of the lurid sort. The film has a number of good scenes, but doesn't work as well as a whole, partly because of the transitions and partly because they are based on cameos so there's no real development or sense of cohesion. People complain the comedy isn't funny enough, which is the equivalent of saying it doesn't do enough to glorify adultery, especially since there is fun elsewhere. It largely comes from Attal's little games like sneaking around trying to scare his family and a big food and pillow fight with Gainsbourg. There are definitely problems with this film and I was somewhat disappointed by it, but it does possess a keen understanding of the temptations, frustrations, fears, and desires that mid 30's men go through. [3/7/06] ***

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Harry + Max
Christopher Munch

***

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The Heart Is Deceiptful Above All Things
Asia Argento

***

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The Hidden Blade
Yoji Yamada

***1/2


Hotel Rwanda
Terry George

***

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Howl's Moving Castle
Hayao Miyazaki

***

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In the Realms of the Unreal
Jessica Yu

The line between genius and lunatic can be pretty thin, and pretty irrelevant. One of the best examples of that is Henry Darger, who after his father died spent his early years in a home for the "feeble-minded" where the kids spent all day doing manual labor, subject to harsh punishment if they slumped off. After escaping at age 17 he was generally considered a crazy potentially schizophrenic recluse by the few people that knew he existed. Just before he died penniless at 81, his neighbors discovered the janitor who they often heard having wild conversations with himself was in fact an artist acting out his stories. What other people saw of his life was undoubtedly lousy, but he was able to escape by applying himself creatively. It might not have been profitable or even good, but what's important is it made his life tolerable and gave him a reason to go on. Darger's work was quite bizarre, largely consisting of a 15,000 page opus where cherubic little girls with penises battled evil torturous atheist adult generals in Confederate uniforms for their freedom. This documentary uses his work and interviews with the people who "knew" him to try to unravel the mystery of a man who is now considered one of the greatest outsider artists (untrained and not part of the "art world"). Well, actually since so little of his life is known it chooses to revel in his mystery and mystique. By regularly using contradictory recollections, even about the smallest and most insignificant details like where he sat in church, it might be said to do about as much to add to the mystique as it does to demystify it. But in any case it's an intense piece of work that puts you inside Darger's wild world of children trying to maintain their purity, of battles with God and institutional adults. It's a technically accomplished documentary that develops the aural end and applies whatever visuals fit. It's fairly short, but very lively because we rarely actually see the talking heads. Instead, while we are hearing about him we are treated to Darger's drawings, paintings, pictures, collages, even animations of his work. Though the talking heads provide much of the background information, more important is the work of narrators Larry Pine and Dakota Fanning, who provide what might be Darger's perspective, reenacting his texts and reading from his autobiography as if they were Darger. The work lacks objectivity or distance, taking for granted Darger has some kind of brilliance and not really examining that his at least somewhat twisted work might have been a product of his sicknesses or at least an imaginative reworking of his traumatic youth. On the other hand, it doesn't exploit him as the freak of the day like the media would or use Freud and puritanism to condemn him for all sorts of perversion. Watch it and draw your own conclusions. [12/3/05] ***

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Intimate Strangers
Patrice Leconte

Reteamed with Sandrine Bonnaire, Leconte somewhat returns to the territory of his masterpiece Monsieur Hire. What works is that the focus is on Bonnaire, allowing the main character (Fabrice Luchini), who again is ordinary for real life but rare in film because he's not the type we are supposed to want to turn ourselves into, be the real mystery. He's a tax accountant who she may or may not have mistaken for a headshrinker, and Leconte gets much mileage out of the dubious potential and sexual intrigue while making a legitimate film that has little to do with either. Where the film falls short is in settling for bourgeois melodrama rather letting the outsider aspect of the male lead justify him creating a more intriguing world; the film tries to deal with Luchini changing but we are kept on the outside. Though well acted and generally compelling, the headshrinker/female patient relationship has been done so many times that, even though Leconte doesn't turn it into a midnight movie and often works against genre, it still winds up coming off as a legitimate example of an illegitimate subgenre. Similarly, the attractive woman changing the stuffy man in a screwball comedy has been overdone. So the problem is mainly the fact that we the audience are so confined to situations presenting extremely limited possibilities. Leconte gets high marks for not serving up the expected, but he fails to really satisfy because he doesn't quite have a good alternative. All in all though, it's as good as anything Leconte's done since The Hairdresser's Husband, which also happens to be the last time he created a world. ***

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Keane
Lodge Kerrigan

****

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The Keys to the House
Gianni Amelio

A credible and sensitive glance at a cowardly father's (Kim Rossi Stuart) attempt to finally do his duty for a palsied child (Andrea Rossi) he abandoned at birth. It may not quite work as a drama, but can't we say more about the human condition when we don't package it into dramatic terms? Either way, how often do we get a compassionate focused look at someone who has been disabled since birth? The plot is not important. As usual, Amelio's interest lies in the uncertainty of the main character's role in life, which it must be pointed out in these times of ME, ME, ME is refreshingly defined by where he fits into the lives of others. The film is simply his quest to discover it, which takes place bit by bit over the duration with none of the relations hammered home. I believe it's purposely a bit awkward. You can't expect things to go as planned when dealing with someone whose condition makes them, in a sense, completely unpredictable. Rather than box things in, contriving a lot of situations and forcing a lot of messages then heaping on a bunch of tear jerking sentiment like such cornball nonsense as I Am Sam, it kind of just lets various situations play out. There's a lot of silence, of puzzled and questioning looks, of uncertainty. The father goes in with preconceived notions that turn out not to be true, but the film doesn't announce these notions, we quietly see them crumble from the look on his face. He learns a lot both from interacting with the physically and mentally retarded teen and from conversations with Charlotte Rampling who plays a mother who gave up her life to devote it to her disabled daughter. The acting is of the highest caliber. Stuart carries the film never begging for attention or our reaction, never forcing us to love or hate him. Rampling defines a character so quickly and precisely on her own that we don't need to be told much of anything about her. Her dialogue is very refreshing in it's honesty; there's no sugar coating here or attempting to talk Stuart into anything, just a lot of undistilled truth to prepare him for the rest of his life. The most important casting is Andrea Rossi, who is very obviously actually handicapped. In this case I say that in the best possible way, obviously it's too bad for real life but everything in his performance comes off as authentic in the way that the gimmicky method performances of Dustin Hoffman & Sean Penn, great as they are in other roles, never does. You never feel like the film is exploiting or condescending to the disabled in any way, and I believe it has a lot to offer about how you have to change yourself to help them without dehumanizing them or making us pity them. All the themes are there, they simply don't announce them and highlight the answers in bold and italic like a Holyplastic excursion into feeling good about yourself by tolerating the noble tart for 2 hours. This isn't an entertaining film like Rain Man, or even an easy one to watch but I think it's one people will really be able to relate to because the father is a very human character that is just plain unsure of how to deal with this difficult situation. [11/25/05] ***

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Land of Plenty
Wim Wenders

***

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Lila Says
Ziad Doueiri

Passionate, sensual, and intellectual look at the first love of lonely, alienated highly artistic teens in a Marseille ghetto. Though praised for dealing with race, Lila (Vahina Giocante) seemingly being the only French girl in the Arab slum only serves to make her exotic to Chimo (Mohammed Khouas), and vice versa. His appeal lies far more in being cultivated unlike his degenerate catcalling friends. Their artistic leaning bonds them, and spurs each other forward. Since they are in love and all Lila's conversation is sexual they don't exactly realize they are each other's muses and their gray matter is more what's being engaged. Lila's strength is storytelling and having just moved here she seems to have a lot of experiences, while Chimo's strength is writing but having never been anywhere she seems his first real topic. Chimo conveys things more eloquently, but is only able to do so on paper, never uttering his true feelings. Their inability to communicate has many roots, including the insecurity of all, the thin line between love, lust, and fear, but the primary problem is their personality and temperament are quite opposite. Lila is daringly outgoing, but shy introverted Chimo is taken aback by her sexually risque dialogue, enticed yet unsure of the proper reaction to the point he's rendered inexpressive and verbally impotent. Lila has always been ogled for her angelic beauty, particularly by her religious possibly lesbian pedophile guardian Aunt (Edmonde Franchi), but at 16 she merely understands her power lies in her looks. The crux of the story is Lila is only interested in someone who will truly love her, so she constantly pushes Chimo's buttons to test the legitimacy and strength of his love, turning herself on by hopefully turning him on. In doing so she disregards the effect on others, the fact that an Arab neighborhood isn't the place for liberated sexual expression and their romance will no longer be secret. Part of the point is it's all a tease, but lacking the maturity of Sally Potter's Yes it winds up coming across as being as inoffensive as a recent American movie, more accessible and commercial than Benoit Jacquot's similarly themed A tout de suite. The characters are complex, but it's almost like Ziad Doueiri takes on so many aspects he winds up leaving most undeveloped. If he didn't waste so much time going on about Giocante being so amazingly blonde, the silly paint serving only to create the usual ludicrous contrast between her complexion and beautiful thick brunette eyebrows, he could have dealt more with her character itself, which like Chimo's popular novel upon which the film was based is seen only through Chimo's eyes. He also could have pursued angles such as each only having a woman caretaker or Chimo knowing life is passing him by but liking the safety of his familiar confines and the fact he feels less like a loser staying amongst his fellow no-hopers. [7/2/07] ***

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Maria Full of Grace
Joshua Marston

A young pregnant Columbian girl escapes a dignity robbing unskilled job at a flower plantation, turning to crime because it's her only opportunity to make "acceptable" wages. In other words, it's your basic blue-collar crime scenario except perhaps that she's risking life and limb for just $5,000. In this case the crime is transporting illegal drugs of questionable value across the border, with the irony that one of the reasons Maria never had any money is most of her meager wages went to purchasing legal drugs of questionable value for her sister's child. It's similar to an underrated Madeline Stowe vehicle Tropical Snow in that the transportation is done by swallowing bags and much of the suspense comes from the fact you die if one explodes, but there's no romanticism here. We understand the character's decisions without everything being spelled out for us, and the characters don't have to be likable. The director isn't editorializing with a lot of woe is them stuff, so the film is allowed to evolve fairly realistically and without a ton of manipulation. This is a rare film that's suspenseful without compromising believability. A well researched film that chooses credibility over bogus award moments, though shockingly newcomer Catalina Sandino Moreno was given a token nod by the Academy Mafia for her tough, gritty, persistent performance. [9/24/05] ***

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Mean Creek
Jacob Aaron Estes

A stunning, highly disturbing first feature that suffers from comparisons. It's true Mean Creek is more than a bit similar to Bully, a film that went farther toward trying to identify the root of the problems teens face, but it's been compared to everything from River's Edge to Deliverance, the later being an incredibly silly reach Lion's Gate has unfortunately encouraged in their advertising. Regardless of what's come before, the problem certainly still (will always) exists and there should be more films like Mean Creek that legitimately examine it, rather than mindless films that get a free pass because they are similar to so many previous films you'd get carpal tunnel trying to list them. Mean Creek starts out as a simplistic revenge tale if you want to say it's just about getting even with the class bully, but there is nothing simplistic about this exploration into peer pressure and the dynamics of a group of underdeveloped minds. It is capable of tricking you, of capitalizing on your desire to root for and against individuals, to see people as types, to be pleased and entertained, but it only grows in weight and depth as it does so. Undersized Sam (Rory Culkin) is the character that gets bullied, and of course he doesn't like it, but he is smart enough to know you take some beatings in life and would move on rather than hurt obese sharp-tongued bully George. It's mainly his older brother Rocky that won't let him forget it, and Rocky's bigger and tougher pal Marty that's in it for revenge, egged on by his older brother and brother's friend who make fun of him for getting involved in this when he should be out trying to get laid like them. While other films deal with a group of children that are essentially the same age, Mean Creek finally explores the very different dynamic of mixed ages. Rather than being another look at lost youth it's ultimately about growing up too soon, about doing glamorized things just because someone else has or is. All the characters are dumb about some things but have some knowledge of others, most notably George, who is very perceptive in finding ways to wound others but completely clueless that they didn't invite him to go boating for the pleasure of his company. The characters are not dangerous on their own but are very insecure (and unfortunately are in a world that constantly harps on "flaws" as a way to create highly profitable markets that have no reason to exist) and can be easily dominated by someone older because they have more experience in exerting their will. So these kids are not hopeless, just inexperienced, but not to the point where they are unable to see some of themselves in George, see he has good and bad points. George might be annoying but ultimately he's just looking for friends and to enjoy himself. Like the rest he's lonely at heart, he unfortunately has more obnoxious coping methods. He always lies saying he's done something he obviously hasn't to be "cool" and "fit in", and immediately accuses someone else of having never done that thing to distract from his own lie. As the film progresses it becomes a more and more complex moral examination, with all but the oldest trying to call off the revenge but George ultimately not helping himself any. It gives every character the unique perspective and experience they deserve, allowing them to come to the same decision separately. Whether they succeed in banding together to make the right decision in time, and whether they can reverse what's been set in motion may be different stories because in the non-fairy tale world events have consequences. But this is a film where they actually consider and more or less debate ethics and morality. They legitimately attempt to figure out what can and should be done in a world where there are no simple answers. And it's all done with restraint and surprisingly credible acting. It's the kind of film that young adults should be shown, but instead they are conveniently only allowed to see films that help create these problems by encouraging them not to think about anyone's actions, only to think about the cool stuff they need to run out and buy as soon as the movie is over. [10/14/05] ***1/2

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Michelangelo Eye to Eye
Michelangelo Antonioni

Perspective has always been a bigger key to the work of Michelangelo Antonioni than almost any other director. For all this wordless short seemingly entails - looking around Rome's San Pietro at what's left of the wall tomb Michelangelo Buonarroti made for Pope Julius II - you could just visit the cathedral yourself, but Antonioni's gift has always been opening up a new world through the way he sees and experiences life. As always, much of the screen time is spent lingering, in this case on various aspects of Buonarroti's Moses. Antonioni not only reveals the texture, form, grandness, and imperfections of the marble statue, but, in his first screen performance, compares and contrasts it to his own body, particularly focusing on the intense knowing but unknowable gaze their inability to speak renders far more enigmatic and profound. Both may have seen better days, as shown by the shots of their aged bodies, but are also more fit than we've seen them in a while through the deception of modern technology that has restored them. Part of the what makes Michelangelo Eye to Eye special is Antonioni, partially paralyzed by a wheel chair confining stroke in 1985, "walks" for the first time since the tragedy. It could be argued that Antonioni aggrandizes himself through comparison, but the correlation shows the grandness of the still imposing sculpture, marked by some age spots but still shimmering as a whole, triumphing over the frailty of the decrepit skin and bones that caress it. In typical Antonioni fashion, whether the architecture is natural or artificial, it still has a way of dwarfing humans who believe they control it. Of course, like all Antonioni the film refuses to fill in the blanks, asking far more than it answers and haunting the audience by finding ways to force them to ponder the possibilities and mysteries of life. [7/28/07] ***

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Mondovino
Jonathan Nossiter

***1/2

Full Movie Review

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Monster Thursday
Arild Ostin Ommundsen

***

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The Motorcycle Diaries
Walter Salles

Rather than exploit the biopic angle like most films, Walter Salles has chosen to completely ignore it until the end of the film. Though a film about Cuban Revolution leader Che Guevara who the CIA soon assassinated, this is simply the story of two regular well off guys who take a road trip, one of whom ends up a much different person than when he started. The casting of Gael Garcia Bernal in the lead benefits the early portion because of his famous role. We are expecting the horny teen of the overrated Y Tu Mama Tambien, and though he's thankfully not spanking the monkey every two minutes, the trip starts out as two guys just looking to have a good time. The further they progress the more Ernesto as he's then known is affected by the conditions he sees. But the film really isn't political at all; there is nothing in it to make you think Guevara would become a leader of any sort, would inspire a group of people. Guevara is too introverted and arguably too honest for that kind of thing. One of the interesting aspects is the two personalities, Alberto is always running a con to get food and shelter and Ernesto is always working against him by telling the truth, telling people things they may not want to hear. Anyway, Ernesto may help someone now and then, but it's the people (mostly poor) that help him and his friend Alberto Granado time and time again, as they journey 7500 miles from Argentina to Peru without shelter, virtually without money, and after their old motorcycle dies out without transportation. The film is effecting, especially in counterpointing the still beautiful real locations Ernesto traveled with the monstrosities that man replaces them with. Salles has a tendency to make things too beautiful, but he's at least found more of a balance here in not making poverty look noble or great. The film is inspiring without trumping up emotion in false ways and is entertaining without completely compromising the social commentary. There are plenty of problems with it though, first and foremost that Ernesto is too pure, sweet, honest, and saintly to be human, thus while it may not be specifically political it's certainly still mythmaking. It's also silly in points, for instance they are always falling off their motorcycle but never really getting hurt. While the surprise that Ernesto is a real famous person helps in some respects, the film is too plot oriented and aside from showing the usually hidden poor seems to contain no real revelations and nothing that has a life of it's own outside of advancing the rather flimsy plot. I wouldn't take this film too seriously, but find it commendable to a certain extent because unlike the usual "entertainment" a lot of real life is allowed to creep into the fun. ***

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Nobody Knows
Hirokazu Kore-Eda

A quite film that delicately balances the good and bad of growing up without outside influences. A selfish childlike mother (You) of four disappears with boyfriends for longer and longer stints, demanding everyone's attention when she bothers to put in an appearance and trying to buy her children off with gifts. When the oldest mentions he's a bit sick of her routine she blames their absent fathers and simply doesn't bother coming back at all, forcing the young children to fend for themselves. Their mom has kept them out of school and of course since the government institutions of every society are known to be completely brainless and inhuman, the children have already learned not to seek aid because they'll be split up. There's an irony to this though - only the oldest can leave the house or make any noise at home because he's the only one the landlord knows is living there. Thus, the three younger ones are boxed in while the oldest is deprived of his freedom by having to play every role imaginable for the other three. It's based on a true story, like seemingly everything else these days, but for once it announces at the outset the details and characters are entirely fictional. Eschewing the typical sentimentality, cuteness, nostalgia, and generally commercial safe scenes of childhood, Kore-Eda has crafted a very realistic record of the events as they might have taken place. Shot over a year with a cast of non-professionals, he simply tries to capture life. The oldest child, Yuya Yagira, won best actor at Cannes, but it's more the directors style than any of the performances that makes the film so impressive. They are not asked to act per se - there's no forced dramatics - rather they are simply placed in the situation and observed doing things they'd be likely to do. The 12-year-old is very responsible early on, when he's trying to impress his mother with his trustworthiness, but his siblings (10, 7, and 5-years-old) are near useless and without money or anyone else to do anything productive the house falls into stench and decay. Yagira is no superman, he can keep track of the budget and go shopping, but he's rightfully able to pick up physically supporting his siblings a lot quicker than emotionally supporting them. He gets away with some huge childish mistakes like telling his brother not to bother coming home when he's pissed he disobeyed. The film barely uses music and never stoops to announcing what it wants you to feel, the camera simply looks on. The images are often purposely contradictory. One can focus on the poor living conditions and say what a grim film this is, but I disagree. Things get worse and worse as the children can no longer even afford the monthly bills for the essentials, but on the other hand they are increasingly able to ignore those things and have fun. Other times the images signal danger, but since kids are clumsy and not too conscious about safety we are put into the role of the parent (which also pisses us off that theirs is absent). An obnoxious blaring score is not at all required, in fact we probably get nervous many more times without it because the adult mind (when it's allowed to think) generally wants to be safe rather than sorry. The film condemns society for it's callous indifference, celebrates the resilience of childhood without the Disney mythmaking that adults are unnecessary (well, except to pay for all the toys and paint you need) or children are infallible, offering none of the usual contrived pat answers. [11/25/05] ***1/2

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Outfoxed: Rupert Murdock's War On Journalism
Robert Greenwald

Strong case study on the right wing propaganda that passes as news on Murdoch's most notorious station. The footage backs up all the points clearly and concisely, with former workers adding the behind the scenes meddling we'd previously only suspected. The big problem is if the other news stations had a shred of credibility Fox's propaganda wouldn't be allowed to pass as news. Too much effort is spent outing Murdoch, an incredibly easy target and very little is spent on the other few billionaires who control the rest of the propaganda machine. Though Murdoch is by far the worst offender and it's true his abuses have led to the same thing they always do, rather than provide an alternative everyone else follows suit, the surface of the real truth is only scratched. The best commentary is provided by Bob McChesney, especially when he points out the superiority of the American propaganda machine to the old Soviet model because the Americans hide the truth and operate under the premise that they are "fair and balanced" so our guards are lowered and we just accept rather than really think about the possibility and plausibility of what they are putting over on us. There's plenty of good bits and thought provoking material, especially regarding the 2000 and then upcoming election, though it falls prey to the same bias as the fear channel, relying almost entirely on sources of one mindset and political bend. [9/24/05] ***

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The Other Side of the Street
Marcos Bernstein

***

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Scorsese on Scorsese
Richard Schickel

***

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Somersault
Cate Shortland

***

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They Came Back
Robin Campillo

One of the few legitimate zombie films ever made, They Came Back brings a matter of fact approach and a subtle wit to the dilemma of (mainly old) dead people suddenly returning more or less as they were and trying to resume their old lives. At once a human (and semihuman) story and a look at how modern government handles those it doesn't know what to do with, it's far more successful at the latter showing a muddled bureaucracy that has little idea beyond drugging the zombies so they are more like the rest of us zombies. Gains a creepy and unsettling edge from not delivering the expected and not explaining too much, though people watching it expressly for it's horror value will be disappointed. The big problem comes in the interactions with the dead, in order to remain shrouded in mystery the dialogue is never able to touch on the kind of questions one would want to know. Basically to avoid succumbing to contrived false answers Campillo could only dodge the questions, which also hampers the character development. Starts much better than it ends. [9/24/05] ***

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Tony Takitani
Jun Ichikawa

Superb novelistic meditation on loneliness, isolation, and the baggage your past leaves you with. The titled character (Issei Ogata) is a solitary passionless technical illustrator who has never had anything but money. Thus when he finally has another person in his life he is perpetually scared it won't last; he'll be abandoned and back to nothing. His new wife (Rie Miyazawa) fills most of his emotional vacuum, but is still as incomplete as he was. She tries to fill her life with objects, compulsively purchasing every nice piece of designer clothing she lays her eyes on because they theoretically remake her as a fresh beauty. They take on a life of their own filling an exterior (their own room) rather than an interior (the emptiness inside), so they are ultimately lifeless and thus unfulfilling. Just when Tony has become comfortable with a life that includes someone other than himself, his wife dies essentially of consumerism and he's much worse than before because where he had no emotion now he has pain and misery in place of his newfound happiness. In hopes of erasing the memories of his wife, he hires a housekeeper that looks very much like her (also played Miyazawa) and orders her to wear her old clothes. He quickly sees that this can't work because he'd only be replacing the old memories with similar new ones, forcing himself to have two people to forget rather than one. This dreamy introspective film unfolds as a series of gorgeous shots set to a spare somber piano score by Ryuichi Sakamoto and a continual distanced poetic narration of the characters thoughts, regularly interrupted by the actors cutting in to finish the idea. That sounds like a lot, but in essence the film is a blank because the characters are a void. There's so little to the film you sometimes wonder how it works, but the fact it manages to operate on a deeper subconscious level is why it succeeds where others fail. [8/17/06] ***1/2

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Triple Agent
Eric Rohmer

I'm a little afraid to call this a spy film because that makes people think of that miniature IQ juvenile fantasy, but this is certainly one of the most complex and ambitious films involving spies. It's also very much Rohmer, with his ambiguous scripting and nuanced characters focusing on lies and a moral dilemma. It contains no cartoon action or women who constantly tease removing their clothes but of course never do because then the film would be too "mature" for its audience. Rohmer examines the relationship of a White Russian Army general (from the old guard who was thrown out with the rise of the Reds) living in France and his Greek wife (Katerina Didaskalu) who paints at home and thus is out of the loop. In deceiving Soviets, Marxists, and Fascists the agent (Serge Renko) must also deceive his wife, and the better portion focuses on the difficulty of having a relationship with someone when it is detrimental and probably impossible to be honest with them. The key event is the wife becoming curious when she learns a detail that makes her question whether she can trust her husband. She still doesn't really care about politics, but it makes her realize how little she knows about him and she decides she needs to remedy this. The film is largely told from her point of view, thus we never see the agent in action which is great because we observe the effect it has on their hearts and souls but never know the truth. The screenplay has Rohmer's poetic flair you either love or hate, but what makes this particular one fascinating is the ability of the agent to pile complexity upon complexity to each issue in order to not only avoid giving his own opinion but open up so many possibilities to even the most seemingly black and white issue. That said, the agent often seems to tell the truth; he can get away with it because that's so surprising and it's so fantastic. This is the kind of thought provoking movie that you'll probably have a different take on each viewing. The biggest difference between this work and Rohmer's previous is it's his first true tragedy. Though set in the past, the high level deception causing events to spiral to a point of no return is a subject that seems to only grow in relevance. In a sense the catastrophe of misinterpretation has usually been key to Rohmer's work, but here the misunderstanding isn't romantic or confined to a very small circle. Instead it's the basis of the film because it's the basis of the man's every relationship and he's in a field where he has too many of them for his own good. [2/21/06] ***

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Undertow
David Gordon Green

Naturalistic, meditative reimagining of Charles Laughton's Night of the Hunter as viewed through the prism of producer Terrence Malick's Badlands with the specter of Mark Twain looming large over the proceedings. Told from the perspective of two isolated then fleeing children (Jamie Bell & Devon Alan), reality, mythology, and the palpable poor southern environment mixing decaying abandoned urban sprawl with backwoods pig farms allows their impressionable, sheltered minds to reenvision their reality. Further obscuring and abstracting the story is the fact the gothic fairy tale is all recollection. Nonetheless, regional master David Gordon Green's third film is more conventional and plot driven than George Washington or All the Real Girls, losing some of his lyricism and thoughtful meandering to enter the thriller genre with this tale of the misdeeds of the elders coming back to haunt the younger generation. John Mull (Dermot Mulroney) secluded his family after his wife died, but failed to rid himself of the accursed gold coins handed down from his father, causing his brother Deel (Josh Lucas) to find their small home upon release from the big house. After a tragedy, the boys attempt to run away, meeting several down home earthy characters who are anything but stereotypical quirksters, before their inevitable climactic confrontation to break free from the past. Green is more concerned with character development than the mechanisms of suspense, valuing the rhythms of life on the run featuring Malickesque quiet introspective moments with reflective, contemplative, and innocent voice over narration over the expected action and thriller staples. As always, Green's languid, poetic evocation of rural America is remarkably ambient, with Tim Orr's location photography being captivating enough to instill a reverence for landscapes, even junkyards, into the audience. While still interesting, Undertow probably isn't a move in the right direction for Green. His unconventional strengths too often seem to take a back seat to the conventional story that seems imposed upon him, resulting in a more derivative movie that's less persuasively rendered as his concerns begin to be marginalized into asides. [10/27/07] ***

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We Don't Live Here Anymore
John Curran

This complex combination of the late Andre Dubus' shorts ''We Don't Live Here Anymore'' and ''Adultery'' yields an American film that's perceptive and intelligent enough about adult relationships to have been made by the French. The film focuses on two couples whose life has fallen into deadening routine and whose stale marriage has reached the point of no return. The men (Mark Ruffalo & Peter Krause) are best friends who teach in the English field at the local college, but Ruffalo desires Krause's wife (Naomi Watts) for some diversion so he pushes Krause into an affair with his wife (Laura Dern). These people have not only lost their ability to love but almost to feel at all, which is what people tend to dislike about it, they only get a slight response from sex with the other rather than the usual affair promoting excitement. Ultimately what they do, whether it be screw or argue, is just to get themselves through another day. In addition to not being tawdry or outrageous, most of the usual traps and cliches are avoided, though the characters are too cutely contrasted (details like Dern being a terrible housekeeper while Watts is a great one). Ruffalo & Watts enter their affair knowing full well they will eventually and in the not too distant future be caught. They are not ready to truly consider much less accept the consequences, which will drag their children in that much more, or simply too masochistic to be concerned by them. Unlike the typical film that justifies one character through the weaknesses of the other, this one separates their abilities as a parent and as a spouse so it's not easy to side with or against any of the four. It's a relationship study that doesn't compromise or dumb down in any way, especially not sugar coating the ugliness and cruelty to appease the audience. The dialogue isn't all calculated to entertain with it's cruelty or biting one lines, the characters are more realistic because they aren't turned into sitcom entertainers, rather they just drift through life half-heartedly doing whatever they want without getting excited about it. Rather than make some phony grand sweeping statements the film is content to show that people always have the ability to make a change, and though like everything else that might be sloppy there's always a chance things will work out. The cast is uniformly excellent delivering sharply nuanced performances that pierce through to the emotional core, with Ruffalo being the most superb largely because he's the least self conscious and showy. The director largely stays out of their way, which is fine given the quality of the story and actors. ***

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The Woodsman
Nicole Kassell

***

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Yes
Sally Potter

***

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Yesterday
Darrell Roodt

The tragedy of the South African AIDS pandemic is brought home in this mature yet beautifully simple work that presents a heroic character who struggles against inevitability but does so in a manner that avoids the usual sentimentality, mawkishness, and pathos. Yesterday (Leleti Khumbalo) is a woman who is very sick. The witch doctor tells her it's anger she must release, but even with her health steadily declining she is not enraged. The medical doctor, when she's eventually able to see her, typically is only able to supply a name for the problem after testing. The M.D. speaks of physical strength, but the film argues it's the mental strength of the patient that's the crucial factor, the mindset of being determined to fend off illness rather than give in to it. The film is about Yesterday's struggle to maintain her dignity as she deals with the ever increasing difficulty of tending to her daily chores and responsibilities. These difficulties are greatly magnified by the discovery her unfaithful husband is the one that gave her the virus, and his condition is far more advanced than hers. The ignorant villagers maliciously gossip about them, and things only get worse when they find out the truth because to their feeble minds it proves a kind of sick superiority. Only the new schoolteacher (Harriet Lenabe) has any clue and is willing to help, but she is unable to convince anyone else, few if any of whom are educated. Yesterday winds up having two goals, living long enough to see her daughter Beauty (Lihle Mvelase) start to get the education she never had and building a hospital for her husband by herself because the villagers want him out yesterday and the real hospital doesn't have any available beds. This is the kind of film where she won't necessarily succeed in both, but she'll at least die trying. Although she handles everything in a manner everyone should aspire to rather than the usual whining and self-pity we succumb to, the film is generally pretty honest. There aren't a lot of revelations here, but it's a great humanist work that doesn't condescend to the audience. It's been made with a surprisingly high level of technical competency given the amount of films that have come from isiZulu. The beauty of this poetic work can't be ignored, but isn't forced upon us and more importantly never sugar coats the ugliness of life. Instead, the contrast between the rural beauty and the difficulties of humans in that environment is always apparent. I was particularly impressed by the transitions, as the next scene is set up not just by a jumpy edit but by cutting to a slow tracking shot that transports you to the next point of interest. [1/13/06] ***

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