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In the Mood for Wong Kar-wai

Manohla Dargis' List

Ali (Michael Mann, USA)
Apocalypse Now Redux (Francis Ford Coppola, USA)
Faithless (Liv Ullmann, Sweden)
The Gleaners and I (Agnes Varda, France)
I’m Going Home (Manoel de Oliveira, Portugal)
In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar-wai, Hong Kong/France) Intimacy (Patrice Chereau, France)
Mulholland Drive (David Lynch, USA)
The Royal Tenenbaums (Wes Anderson, USA)
Sobibor, October 14, 1943, 4 p.m. (Claude Lanzmann, France).
(In alphabetical order.)

Films to look forward to in 2002:
Éloge de l’Amour (Jean-Luc Godard, France)
The Piano Teacher (Michael Haneke, Austria/France)
Time Out (Laurent Cantet, France)
Warm Water Under a Red Bridge (Shohei Imamura, Japan).

 

Composing a list of the year’s best films is one of our favorite indulgences — a time to right everyone else’s wrongs, as well as to marvel over just how many movies we’ve watched. For my part, though, this pleasant ritual was more difficult than usual, because this year I could barely remember a single movie I’d seen before September 11. So I began poring over the lists of releases, as well as festival selections, trying to forget the lost hours of too many bad movies while summoning up the movie hours in which I had been very happily lost. It worked: I not only rediscovered films I’d loved before this year was violently cleaved in two, but their pleasures. It’s in this spirit of reinvigorated movie love that I asked the Weekly’s regular film contributors to write about a film or film-related subject that they felt had been slighted, overlooked or somehow done a critical injustice, even by this paper.

At the time, I didn’t know what I would choose; now, however, after having read the parsimonious reviews of two of the year’s best features, I realize that what’s burrowed under my skin more deeply than usual is the refusal of many American critics to look at a film as more than the sum of its plot and that miserable excuse for their own aesthetic judgment, “sympathetic” characters. That a film’s images make as much meaning, sometimes more, as its story and dialogue seems a simple and obvious point. The experience of watching a movie is both fleeting and evolving: There is the actual moment of watching, of seeing how characters move through the frame and how scenes follow along, and the later moments of reflection, when you replay the film in your head and the images blur and connect with the ones already there. It’s certainly possible to not like the way a film looks, but you have to actually look first.

To watch, then, Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums and not understand its style, what one reviewer dismissed as “eye candy,” is to miss not just one of the crucial points of the movie — the cost to the children of the family’s mythology — but one of the truths of film itself. Similarly, to watch Michael Mann’s Ali and not see how the director makes meaning out of his breathtaking imagery, out of music, montage, even different shades of black skin, is to completely miss the movie. The first 10 minutes of Ali are among the finest in any film of the last 10 years, and it’s telling of Mann’s brilliance that this sequence is essentially wordless. The film opens with Sam Cooke singing to swooning women and somewhere else a young black man running in the dark. Finally, someone speaks — a white cop yells to the young man, “What you running from, son?” Everything you need to know about the film exists in this scene, in the way the women writhe for Cooke, soon dead, and in the way the cop shouts to the runner, who just keeps going. At this moment, everything comes together — the soul-stirring music, the ecstasy of the audience, the beauty, charisma and sexual vibrancy of these men, as well as the perils of living in an America where to be a black man running in the night must mean you’re running from something. Barely a word of dialogue has been spoken, and none is needed.

 

Hazel-Dawn Dumpert's List

Ali(Michael Mann, USA)
Enlightenment Guaranteed (Doris Dörrie, Germany)
Ghost World (Terry Zwigoff, USA)
Hedwig and the Angry Inch (John Cameron Mitchell, USA) In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar-wai, Hong Kong/France)
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (Peter Jackson, USA)
Mulholland Drive (David Lynch, USA)
Rat Race (Jerry Zucker, USA)
Together (Lukas Moodysson, Sweden)
We Sold Our Souls for Rock ’n Roll (Penelope Spheeris, USA).
(In alphabetical order.)

Hollywood has always had its way with the supremely malleable border between reality and fiction. Truth is blended into fiction, and, more frequently, fiction is blended into truth, sometimes in such a way that a movie’s version of the facts can, to the popular consciousness, become the facts. We’ve come to take such shortcuts and softenings for granted — a composite character here, an enhanced happy ending there — but since the world changed in a day last September, what we say and see in the movies carries more critical implications. Pinning down the truth is always a tricky business; representing it in the movies has just become even trickier. The most immediate effect of this dilemma was the post-9/11 scramble by studios panicked over potentially inappropriate or offensive releases. Yet even in those movies that made the cut, which were in production long before the fall, we can catch a glimpse of the future. Two films, released within a week of each other and based on real events, stand in illuminating counterpoint, giving some idea of the highs and lows we can expect.

Black Hawk Down, Ridley Scott’s depiction of the ill-fated 1993 American raid on the Bakara market in Mogadishu, Somalia, is, at its best, a blast of pure cinema, a vision of the machinations and sensations of battle in exactingly orchestrated sight and sound. At its worst, the film barely manages war-movie cliché, so slight are its character sketches, so blatantly preoccupied is Scott with his devastating imagery. Even worse, the film’s end titles offer ambiguous commentary — about the decision to withdraw from Somalia, about U.S. reluctance to commit ground troops since then — that throws the entire two hours of turmoil that precede it into question. Is Black Hawk Down a celebration of American valor and brotherhood or a condemnation of misguided military involvement? Is the end text inconcise political rhetoric or a hurried add-on designed to give the film topical relevance and Oscar-season gravitas? That we leave the film not knowing is its most crucial flaw, especially now.

And then there is Ali. It is, ostensibly, a biopic describing the transformation of boxer Cassius Clay into Muhammad Ali, an embattled world champion and Black Muslim fighting no less a foe than the United States itself over his refusal to go to Vietnam. It, too, is a triumph of craft, of real cinematic beauty. What makes it transcendent, though, is how it speaks to the formidable power of personal conviction in the face of desperate consequences, and to the fact that what happens to one American — to one citizen of the world — happens to us all. It also reminds us that there are always those striving to impose their will, and that they may be closer to home than we’d care to admit. Like Ali the fighter — who knew that the face he presented to the world as a black man would cue not only those who worshipped him, but those who reviled him — Ali the movie takes its symbolic responsibilities seriously; it serves the purposes of cinema both as an art form and as a popular entertainment, and so is both timeless and timely.

 

F.X. Feeney's List

A.I. Artificial Intelligence (Steven Spielberg, USA)
Mulholland Drive (David Lynch, USA)
Simon Magus (Ben Hopkins, U.K.)
In the Bedroom (Todd Field, USA)
Monsters, Inc. (Pete Docter, USA)
Amores Perros (Alejandro Gonzáles Iñárritu, Mexico)
Faithless (Liv Ullmann, Sweden)
The Anniversary Party (Jennifer Jason Leigh and Alan Cumming, USA)
Memento (Christopher Nolan, USA)
The Royal Tenenbaums (Wes Anderson, USA)
With a Friend Like Harry (Dominik Moll, France)
In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar-wai, Hong Kong/France) Snide and Prejudice (Philippe Mora, USA).
(In order of preference.)

Mulholland Drive
Photo by Melissa Moseley


One can wonder how different a Stanley Kubrick A.I. might have been, had he lived to make it, but one doesn’t have to stretch the imagination much. Steven Spielberg may have transformed the property into a highly personal midlife counterpart of E.T. — yet he stayed true to a story structure unique to Kubrick, and alien to his own body of work. The film unfolds in four symphonic movements, as did 2001. There’s a Dawn of Man sequence — tracing the early home life of the mechanical boy, David (which was the name of the lead astronaut in 2001). There’s a trip to the moon — David’s flight through a fairy-tale wilderness, in which a large artificial moon figures. There’s a game of wits with a superior, possibly malign intelligence — “Rouge City” and its many denizens standing in for HAL. There is a trippy voyage through the gates of mortality — that haunting spectacle of New York, half-submerged in water. Moreover, each fresh stage in the hero’s evolution is prefigured by some violent act. Whereas Dave in 2001 murders HAL, David murders another A.I. patterned after himself — and this act of primal rage provokes his next colossal step, a suicide attempt. There’s a wonderful shot as David drops off a skyscraper into the Atlantic: His fall is reflected in the Plexiglas of the aircraft piloted by his fellow robot Gigolo Joe, and the image of his body appears to descend against Joe’s cheek, like a teardrop. We’re witnessing a great transformation in this little instant — David’s quest to become human makes Joe more human. Indeed, Joe then makes the enormous leap of accepting his own end. As he rescues David, and is himself seized by the police, he speaks his own epitaph, something he could never have done at the story’s start: “Remember me — I am; I was.”

I’m astonished at how few people love this film, and depressed at how many hate it. The picture seems to have fallen afoul of any number of disruptive prejudices regarding Spielberg, Kubrick and the huge differences between the two. And in turn, I’ve been accused of liking the film strictly because my own critical faculties so tilt in Kubrick’s favor. A.I. is indeed an ideal monument to Kubrick’s body of work, one Spielberg brings to life (fittingly, in the year 2001) with a dedication that argues a deepening maturity in his own talent. Yet one can easily pretend it was directed by John Doe from a story by Joe Blow and still be moved by its dreamlike power — especially that ghostly, magnificent cityscape half-rising out of the ocean. The incidental glimpse we get of the twin towers, figments of how the future looked prior to September 11, has a heartbreaking poignancy now: double reminders of the 2001 that actually was, of a hateful and catastrophic rebellion against human progress no cinematic futurist would have sanely projected. Yet the unforeseen tragedy they now signify accords with Kubrick’s and Spielberg’s meditations on human nature, human identity and the destiny of our achievements. A.I. asks us to imagine, and moreover accept, that the human race itself is mortal. The film beautifully dramatizes and defines human consciousness in opposition to hate — as an intangible that may outlive us, in the expression of love and the quest to be loved.

 

Ernest Hardy's List

Baise-Moi(Virginie Despentes and Coralie Trinh Thi, France) Behind the Sun (Walter Salles, Brazil)
The Believer (Henry Bean, USA)
Daresalam (Issa Serge Coelo, Burkina Faso/Chad/France)
Ghost World (Terry Zwigoff, USA)
The Gleaners and I (Agnes Varda, France)
Hedwig and the Angry Inch (John Cameron Mitchell, USA) In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar-wai, Hong Kong/France) Memento (Christopher Nolan, USA)
Mulholland Drive (David Lynch, USA)
Our Lady of the Assassins (Barbet Schroeder, France)
Our Song (Jim McKay, USA)
The Town Is Quiet (Robert Guédiguian, France).
(In alphabetical order.)

Ghost World
Photo by Tracy Bennett


Norma Desmond once snapped that modern movies suffer because they no longer have faces. Filmgoers in recent years have noted a different problem. With both Hollywood and indie filmmakers settling into a fear-based, corporate-driven approach to art and craft, what’s often gone lacking is voices — voices with vision, reason, heart and style, voices with flair and a point of view. Filmmakers who have something, anything, to say. But this was an amazing year for purposeful, idiosyncratic voices behind the camera and onscreen. You simply had to look beyond the multiplex. It was a year in which fringe dwellers — a fat girl in France, teenage hustlers in Colombia, working-class black and Puerto Rican girls in New York, a mutilated transsexual rock star transplanted from Berlin to Middle America, gay Orthodox Jews around the world, an aged, iconoclastic French woman director with a digital camera and blistering social consciousness — seized the screen. What we saw in 2001 was an organic and fruitful flowering of various identity-cinema seeds that had been planted in years past and that, having been packaged and sold by the press and the industry, were often forgotten as soon as festival season ended: New Queer Cinema, the Year of the Woman, Afrocentric film.

This year, those voices coalesced into a choir of perspectives, accents and agendas that transcended easy categorization or marketing schemes. Identities and genres often merged, and frequently commented on or sang backup for one another. Agnes Varda’s Parisian gleaners and Barbet Schroeder’s Medellín hustlers reflected the same dire straits from across the globe. It was a fantastic year for queer film (Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Come Undone, Our Lady of the Assassins, L.I.E., The Adventures of Felix, Burnt Money, The Iron Ladies, War Story); indie/art-house essays on the inner life of the underdog (Donnie Darko, Ghost World, The Believer, Our Song, Together, Lift, Fat Girl); and unflinching political treatises (The Gleaners and I, Lumumba, Baran, The Town Is Quiet, The Circle, Trembling Before G-d, Daresalam, Baise-Moi, Scout’s Honor, Apocalypse Now Redux). Many — if not most — of these films overlapped category delineations, which contributed to their richness. The power of these movies lay in their deep consciousness of the world around us, the toll and the fragile joys of living in it. Music, humor and caustic wit helped tell the tales, but it was in their detailed empathy for the outsider — a cleared space to tell the tale on his or her own terms — and the ability to make us identify with, understand or simply reckon with them, that vaulted these movies into the realm of the sublime. They had voices.

 

Paul Malcolm's List

Roof to Roof (Ara Corbett, USA)
Mulholland Drive (David Lynch, USA)
In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar-wai, Hong Kong/France) Together (Lukas Moodysson, Sweden)
The Believer (Henry Bean, USA)
Trembling Before G-d (Sandi Simcha DuBowski, USA)
Cure (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Japan)
Eureka (Shinji Aoyama, Japan)
Amores Perros (Alejandro González Iñárritu, Mexico)
Ghost World (Terry Zwigoff, USA).
(In no particular order.)

The Los Angeles–raised writer-director Ara Corbett’s directorial debut, Roof to Roof, is the only student film in my Top 10. But that’s not why it deserves special mention: It’s a sublime example of a filmmaker finding a story in his own back yard, and telling it all the more honestly for the closeness of its concerns. Corbett’s graduate-thesis project for Boston University found life outside the classroom on the festival circuit, having screened at Sundance (where I saw it), South by Southwest and the IFP/West Los Angeles Film Festival, but failed to secure distribution. The film would be a tough sell for even the most altruistic distributor: Set in Los Angeles, it is a 73-minute, black-and-white feature in Armenian with English subtitles, shot with an entirely nonprofessional cast — ostensible limitations that Corbett weaves into an intimate portrait of a family and a community wrestling with class, assimilation and the burdens of love. The film centers on a tender pairing of gentle souls being slowly pulled apart: Zaven (Zaven Movsesian), an auto mechanic and single father to a 7-year-old girl, Amy (Amy Aivazian). Over the course of the film, the very resistance to cultural change that allows Zaven to hold himself in quiet dignity at the edge of an otherwise tight-knit Armenian enclave increasingly comes to threaten his sense of self. His lack of English skills jeopardizes his job, while Amy drifts toward the easy affluence of his middle-class, Americanized sister (Armineh Keshishian). Corbett shades Zaven, his most sympathetic character, with stubborn internal contradictions while acknowledging that a child’s innocent desires can be the source of a parent’s most acute emotional pain. It’s testament to his gifts as a screenwriter that he’s not afraid to let in ambiguity. His student status is more noticeable in underlit scenes and in occasionally faint or murky sound, but even the film’s rougher technical edges deepen the naturalism of Corbett’s more assured hand-held camera work: An opening house party at Zaven’s sister’s home pops with improvised observation, while a sequence that finds Zaven under the hood is shot through with the diffuse light of late afternoon, underscoring the determined solemnity of the man and his work.

What really kept Roof to Roof coming back to mind over the course of the year, however, was Corbett’s refusal to betray his film with a neat happy ending. By its final scenes, little has been resolved, but everything has been felt. It’s this sensitivity to the open, messy flow of life that marks some of the other films in my Top 10 — Eureka, Together and Amores Perros — the kind you’ll carry with you for years to come.

 

Ella Taylor's List

Time Out (Laurent Cantet, France)
Eureka (Shinji Aoyama, Japan)
Late Marriage (Dover Kosashvili, Israel)
Éloge de l’Amour (Jean-Luc Godard, France)
Gosford Park (Robert Altman, USA)
Shrek (Andrew Adamson and Vicky Jenson, USA)
The Believer (Henry Bean, USA)
L.I.E. (Michael Cuesta, USA)
Fighter (Amir Bar-Lev, USA)
Ghost World (Terry Zwigoff, USA).
(In order of preference.)


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