Listomania part 2

January 3, 2011 § Leave a comment

Following the haphazardly put-together best reads list, along comes this haphazardly put-together best films watched in 2010 list. But I detest “best”, so “noteworthy” it is. Before I continue, I feel the need to clamber up onto my soapbox and say: it’s well-nigh impossible to participate in year-end conversations with cinephiles on the film highlights of a particular year if you’re Malaysian. Even considering, for a moment, that you had enough money to buy ridiculously overpriced DVDs of foreign and independent films from online stores, it’s harder still to enter into contemporaneous conversation with film-fans from the West because none of those foreign or independent films would have been released in Malaysia and none of those films would have made it to DVD before the year was out. So it would seem that a serious Malaysian film critic or a regular film fan with a taste for the different will always be a couple steps behind in the conversation. The movie that everyone loves today is the movie you’ll likely watch next year. This really pisses me off. *clambers down treacherous soapbox*

Essentially what I’m trying to say here is that these don’t refer to any movies released in 2010. Nevertheless, I watched some amazing films in 2010 made in other years. Hence, a list!

Noteworthy films watched in 2010:

Nobody Knows, dir. Hirokazu Kore-eda. I’m still unsure how to talk about this film except that it proves to be  something that your mind will revisit over and over again in the hopes of making sense of human frailty, simple parental neglect and cruelty, and the general malaise of a wilfully-ignorant society. Based on the real-life incident of abandoned children in Sugamo, Japan, Nobody Knows brings the story to modern-day Tokyo and features one of the most heart-rending performances ever by a young actor, Yuya Agira. Whether or not there is any one person to blame seems not to be the central issue here; what we get instead is a beautiful, bleak, non-sentimental look at how all of us –every single member of society – is implicated in issues of neglect and marginalisation of the young, the powerless, and the poor.

The Celebration, dir. Thomas Vinterberg. I made the mistake of following up Nobody Knows (to get it out of my mind) with this; the result was mental and emotional catatonia for about a week. What seems to be a regular family gathering to celebrate the 60th birthday of a bourgeois family patriarch turns out to be a searing indictment of bourgeois family values and societal hypocrisy. That some people choose values and status over the health and lives of the children and young in their midst is a known fact; what Vinterberg does is drop us in the middle of a family where this is the lived reality. It is harrowing, and yet the living reality of how people cope with terrific pain and betrayal and what they make of it is shown to possess redemptive power and beauty, as well. But I found the movie mentally and emotionally draining, so I’d block out a whole day to recover if I were watching it for the first time. Or the second time.

The Circle and Offside, dir. Jafar Panahi. Two movies that I’ve grouped together simply because they were directed by the same force of Iranian talent, Panahi, and because I consider them the tragic (The Circle) and comic (Offside) versions of the same issue – the oppression of women in societies functioning under fundamentalist regimes. The Circle deserves its own review when I’m finally up to it but its narrative structure is quite technically perfect, and the intertwining stories of women in trouble in modern-day Iran are presented with clear-eyed and tender honesty. I blogged about Offside here. It’s a truly hilarious depiction of unfathomable and absurd sexist rules as it’s played out against the backdrop of football fanaticism and communal participation in hegemony. In both movies, Panahi excels in pointing out, with kindness, sympathy and great tenderness for his human subjects, how foolish we allow ourselves to become when we forget the reasons for doing what it is we do, and the dangerous yet seductive pull of ignorance when we cease to ask why it is we do what we do.

Repulsion and Cul-de-sac, dir. Roman Polanski. Again, these are two wildly different movies, but you know, it’s Polanski. And so some thoughts on Repulsion have already been blogged here, but I’ll just say again that Polanski intrigues with this surprisingly sympathetic portrayal of feminine “excess” and sexual confusion. It’s a riveting cinematic description of desire gone awry, and underpinning it all is the question of female madness – is she, or isn’t she? Cul-de-sac, on the other hand, is a riveting cinematic description of marital hermetic bliss gone awry. It takes an aggressive, violent stranger to ruin the shaky foundations, but the flamboyant and eccentric husband and his seductive, sexually-confident wife have basically switched sexual roles in this “charming romp” which becomes increasingly non-charming and dark as the characters start peeling off their eccentric layers to reveal a seething mass of resentment and confusion. And this can only end in…? We’re not sure. Disaster for some, perhaps, and freedom for others.

The Joshua Tapes, dir. Arvind Abraham. This quiet Malaysian indie film doesn’t really shout or announce its intentions very loudly, except through its occasionally-annoying lead characters who do, in fact, shout quite a bit. But as I mention in my longer review, the effect of being with these characters during an emotionally-turbulent road trip is similar to that of being with one’s own friends. It’s hard to see Malaysiana depicted honestly and without overt nostalgia, optimism, or moralising clouding the essential story, but The Joshua Tapes succeeds admirably and is one of the unexpected minor gems discovered this year. It’s also a superbly-honest look at friendships between long-time friends of mixed ethnicities. The only problem is its significant lack of female characters, but then again, it’s a male-bonding movie that dares to portray male friendships and masculinity without the usual dumb-ass fuckery of, say, Judd Apatow. (Hell yeah, I went there.)

Red Road, dir. Andrea Arnold. I didn’t know what to expect of this when I clicked on it on mubi.com, but what I got was tender and subtle brutality, largely perpetrated and rendered through a emotionally-volatile and isolated CCTV operator who recently lost both her husband and daughter in an accident. Set amidst a particular depressing slice of North Scotland, the act of surveillance is turned upon itself when the surveyor and the surveyed are both implicated in a strange, dark dance of desire that, on the part of the woman, is one rooted in the desire for retribution. What should be nasty, brutish, and short, however, becomes sympathetic and a possible – perhaps – path for potentially redemptive hope. Katie Dickie’s performance is exquisite; her subdued yet jittery portrayal melds perfectly with Tony Curran’s unpredictable yet tender-hearted sort-of criminal.

Strangers on a Train, dir. Alfred Hitchock. Oh, Hitchcock! If only one was able to dismiss you as a misogynist with a bizarre vendetta against women in general that finds its full expression through your female characters on-screen! And then, having made that conclusion, be rid of you forever! Instead I find you beloved in my film-director pantheon. Lest we think ol’ Alfie only had trouble with femininity in female characters, think again. Here, Robert Walker’s effeminate and menacing Bruno Anthony’s manifestation of “feminine excess” is the thing that truly sets everyone off, and Farley Granger’s very manly and athletic Guy Haines can barely relax in Bruno’s presence before all of Guy’s defences are up again. Perhaps I’ve grown used to Anthony Perkins’ Norman Bates with one too many viewings of Psycho, but Walker’s agitated energy and cloying charm is always shot-through with a dose of danger, and the result is that Bruno Anthony gives Norman Bates a good run for his money in the hard-to-pull-off category of Disturbing Psychopaths of All Time. Furthermore, it’s a damn good story. And there are trains. Also, there is a fabulous scene involving a woman’s fallen eye-glasses.

Russian Ark, dir. Alexandr Sokurov. Russian Ark is an unexpected delight; whimsy and dreams and history all coming together in 90+ minutes of a superb directorial imagination taking flight.  After some Wikipedia-ing, I learned that the concept behind Russian Ark was based upon the travel writings of a 19th-century French marquis while he was in Russia. As far as concepts go, Russian Ark is simple and uncluttered and pretty much genius. Who among us does not feel the need to enter into conversation with travellers of yore – imperialists and non – who arrived on our shores and said a great many things about our country before it was even a country, our people, and our culture? The idea of “ours” and “theirs” is explored beautifully in Russian Ark. The result is not a facile, sentimental “It is ALL ours equally!” but more of a “None of us can remain untouched by the other.” Sumptuous scenes filmed in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg also rekindled old longings to visit St. Petersburg. Everything about this film – a 96-minute Steadicam sequence shot, as we’re told – is perfection, which is all the more heightened when you think about the fact that the entire film is a 96-minute Steadicam sequence shot. Hello, you say! Yeah, I reply! Go watch it.

I would have liked to write about the “noteworthy music” I heard in 2010 but I can’t seem to write intelligently on music. (Insert “What can you write intelligently about, then? Hyuk hyuk” joke here.) Also, I acquire music on a regular basis in a very haphazard manner, not full albums most of the time, but bits and pieces, and then after some time when everyone’s heard the full album, I’ll listen to the full album.

So Listomania will, sadly, end here.

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