"Tis the season for retrospective analysis of the year that was and the resulting onslaught of lists, or lisztomania to paraphrase the film of British director Ken Russell, one of the many 20th Century film icons who died this year.
My TEN BEST list this year is retro - ten films that I had wanted to see for years and finally caught up with, or some fresh suggestions of classics from film friends that really inspired me.
All highly recommended. In no particular order.
Ken Loach's second film after his start in British television and the one that brought him international acclaim is a masterpiece of realism featuring an unforgettable performance by young David Bradley and his kestrel, whose soaring flights over the soot-scarred landscape of his troubled youth are pure poetry.
2. THE WORLD
Thanks to Dave Kehr for turning me on to this Chinese film from director Jia Zhangke, with its fascinating modern blend of realism, theatricality and animation. Set in a loopy Beijing theme park with Vegas-style recreations of scaled down versions of famous world landmarks that might have been designed by the villian Gru from "Despicable Me", the opening shot alone is worth the price of admission.
How did I miss this one? An iconic French comedy by Bertrand Blier from the '70's that helped catapult its star Gerard Depardieu to worldwide fame, the somewhat far-fetched and very French premise of a young husband enlisting a lover to cheer up his depressed and tres beautiful wife, wonderfully played by Carole Laure, has three or four unforgettable scenes including the tour-de-force opening ten or twelve minute sequence in which the premise is set-up so convincingly - a triumph of writing, acting and direction.
I blogged about this late '70's film from Japanese producer/director Nobuhiko Obayashi previously but it merits another mention here as a celebration of extreme no-limits-to-the-imagination filmmaking. Pure pop!
It was great fun this year in preparing for the filming of "Disconnect" to revisit the early independent work of writer/director/actor/producer John Cassavettes and rewatch Husbands and Faces, and to finally get a chance to watch his very first and perhaps best film "Shadows". The closest film equivalent to a great improvised jazz solo, this black and white portrait of a group of interracial relationships in Beat era New York City stars Leila Goldoni and a memorable turn from Tony Ray, whose father Nick Ray was also one of the most interesting filmmakers of the era.
This film caused a stir among agents and executives in Hollywood when it first came around in 2002 and catapulted its director Paul Greengrass to big studio level filmmaking, but I was out of the country and missed it, and it has been surprisingly hard to get on DVD since then for some reason - it certainly deserves to be more widely seen; perhaps a Criterion treatment should be in the offing. In the vein of The Battle of Algiers, it is a documentary-style portrait of one man caught in the maelstrom of a devastating act of political violence, with an incredible performance by James Nesbitt that must be seen.
From people of the generation that preceded mine I had always heard that this cult film holds a place of reverence, and seen today it is a pioneering analog work that anticipates so much of what has become the lingua franca of the digital age - DIY, confessional self-reflection, unreliable narrative, meta-fiction. "Exit To The Gift Shop" certainly owes a debt of gratitude to this film. Having known the director Jim McBride for decades I am embarrassed to admit that I only caught up with it on its video re-release this year; but I'm happy to include it on this list of rediscovered gems.
I was happy to find this still frame from the movie online, as apart from the more famous iconic image of the bloodied and muddied working class rugby player played by Richard Harris in this amazing, harrowing film by Lindsay Andersen; this was one of the scenes that really broke my heart - the tender interlude he has with the children of widower Rachel Roberts. A sharp contrast to the film's brutal depiction of life and love as violent sport and a bucolic memory to cling to amidst the many hard truths of David Storey's novel and screenplay. Sometimes the emperor has no clothes, and sometimes a masterpiece is a masterpiece for a reason - glad I waited as long as I did to encounter this one.
9. BORN TO WIN
One of the pleasures of having a streaming Netflix subscription and an iPad. I stumbled on this great Ivan Passer film accidentally one night on location and couldn't stop watching it - not because of the small supporting role played by Robert DeNiro who is shamefully featured on the DVD cover - but because it was such a captivating portrait of a time and place (the mean streets of Manhattan circa 1970) with such winning performances (George Segal, Karen Black, Paula Prentiss) and an unforgettable turn by Jay Fletcher as Segal's drug-hustling buddy Billy Dynamite. It has a mixed reputation, but I think it is one of those films that has gotten better with age.
I liked this film so much that I hired its co-director Henry-Alex Rubin to direct "Disconnect". A documentary with a real grasp of narrative storytelling and just the right tone in a story that could have been too sentimental or full of bathos. The "star" of "Murderball", Mark Zupan, pictured here, even came out and graced us with a cameo in our movie. Watch for him!
What cinematic discoveries or rediscoveries did you make this year?