By Sherrie Li
By Falling James
By Amanda Lewis
By Amy Nicholson
By Amy Nicholson
By Jennifer Swann
By Scott Foundas
By Sherrie Li
(1) Army of Shadows Call it the little movie that could. Four decades late, Jean-Pierre Melville’s ascetic depiction of the French Resistance movement — a story of the underground told as though it were about the underworld — captivated not just critics, but audiences too. (It ran for six weeks at one Santa Monica theater, and re-opens this week in New York.) In an age when many neglected careers in cinema have been restored to their proper glory by way of revivals and restorations, the past decade has been particularly good to Melville, and Army of Shadows may be his crowning achievement.
(2) Flags of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima Clint Eastwood’s mirror-image Iwo Jima movies mark a nearly unprecedented achievement in American cinema, not because they depict World War II from both sides of the frontline, but because they deconstruct notions of heroism and villainy in “the good war” as effectively as Unforgiven imploded the myth of the classical Hollywood Western. A hellish double bill if ever there was, Flags and Letters show us that the ugliness and barbarity of modern warfare cut across all barriers of nationality and language — which is exactly what makes these movies unpopular but essential viewing as we prepare to enter our fifth year in Iraq.
(3) United 93 Like Eastwood, and most emphatically unlike Oliver Stone, the British director Paul Greengrass refused to paint the events of September 11, 2001, in shades of good and evil, to mine inspirational uplift from the ashes of tragedy, or to turn the passengers of United Flight 93 into anything more than exactly who they were — ordinary people trying to get from one place to another. In the process, Greengrass restored something that is all too often lost in the transmission of moving pictures, be they those of a Hollywood movie or of the evening news: the felt value of a single human life.
(4) The Death of Mr. Lazarescu A journey not through the nine circles of hell, but rather deep into the purgatory that is the modern health-care system, as the eponymous old man navigates overcrowded emergency rooms where all patients, regardless of what ails them, are uniformly bandaged up in red tape. For all its bilious critiques of a society insufficiently equipped to care for its people, Cristi Puiu’s extraordinary sophomore film is ultimately an absurdly funny and unbearably tragic human comedy — maybe the human comedy — about the indignity of old age, and how we are so often alone in this life but for the kindness of strangers.
(5) L’Intrus and Inland Empire The two living directors with the most unbridled sense of the possibilities of narrative and the moving image — France’s Claire Denis and America’s David Lynch — emerged this year with two of their most innovative and personal ventures, one made with the full resources of a 35 mm film production, the other on mini-DV with its director doubling as cameraman and sound mixer. In L’Intrus, which made an even briefer appearance in local theaters than The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (and signaled the demise of the enterprising indie distributor Wellspring), a grizzled recluse (69-year-old French actor Michel Subor) travels from a remote French-Swiss border region to the tropical isles of Tahiti in search of a new heart and an estranged son. In Inland Empire, a faded Hollywood actress (Laura Dern in a performance, like Subor’s, that seems confessional in its intimacy) travels from L.A. to Poland in pursuit of a comeback role. The two quests may be but dreams before dying, and the two films, like so much memorable art, seem destined to be underappreciated in their own time.
(6) Happy Feet and Apocalypto If it sounds like a stretch to find common ground in George Miller’s animated penguin musical and Mel Gibson’s blood-drenched Mayan epic, consider the following: Both are allegories about once-great civilizations confronting famine and climate change; both draw their inspiration from Joseph Campbell’s archetypical hero’s journey; and both feature tense scenes in which our intrepid hero, having marched a great distance, is presented before a high tribal priest. The only difference: In one movie, the priest wants a pebble for his thoughts, and in the other, he wants your head on a plate.
(7) Climates and Miami Vice I doubt many moviegoers saw both Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s chronicle of a divorce foretold and Michael Mann’s invigorating stripping-down of his kitsch 1980s television series, but those who did caught the two films most responsible for restoring a sense of adult sexuality to movies in what have been exceptionally chaste times. They also witnessed two of the movies’ most visually ravishing filmmakers experimenting boldly and beautifully with the latest generation of high-definition video cameras.
(8) Children of Men and L’Enfant Two breathless, edge-of-your-seat thrillers about the value of a child in a hostile world. The first, Alfonso Cuarón’s all-too-plausible adaptation of P.D. James’ novel, unfolds amid a futuristic London devastated by war and infertility. The second, Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne’s drama about a wayward young couple who ill-advisedly sell their newborn baby on the black market, takes place in the present, though the backdrop — an impoverished Belgian factory town — is no less forbidding. It too is a kind of war zone — an economic one.
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