Saturday, August 18, 2007

My MIFF Top 10

Excellent to exceptional movies - exclusively:

10. Fay Grim (Hal Hartley, 2006)
What a treat - and a welcome return to form too. Hartley lifts the characters from his lovely Henry Fool (1998) and relocates them in a wacky universe of breathless intrigue, exclusively canted frames and intercontinental espionage. He presents the international political stage with the same slant he used to present New Jersey, and in a similar fashion, the cheeky surface quirk gradually gives way to the much more substantial, much more resonant stuff spiking out from beneath. It's a shame that Hartley's work is so often dismissed as screwy, hollow fantasia - it's no such thing. Rather it's a humanist's gentle, witty and thoroughly switched-on interpretation of an increasingly screwy, but painfully real universe.

9. The Boss of It All (Lars von Trier, 2006)
Who knew Lars von Trier had a sense of humour? And a sweet, eminently likable one too! His first comedy is marked by the same brand of wit, pace, character and conviction as the classic screwballs of the 40s.

8. My Kid Could Paint That (Amir Bar-Lev, 2007)
With many great documentaries it often seems a matter of the filmmaker stumbling upon a goldmine, which first-time Amir Bar-Lev did here, and he unveils it with careful thought and articulation.

7. Blind Mountain (Li Yang, 2007)
After an hour and a half of wrenching, no-frills tension, Li Yang presents a cathartic climax here that even made them famously eager-to-boo elitists in Cannes erupt into pleb-like applause and catcalls. Ditto, the ever so cultured Melbourne Film Fest patrons. I still say it's a moderately silly thing to do, but I completely understand the compulsion.

6. The Witnesses (André Téchiné, 2007)
It takes a lot for me to agree to go see yet another AIDS drama (i.e. a name like Téchiné's in the credits), and I'm very happy I did, since this may very well be the best one made. And even though it takes place in the early-to-mid 80s, it's infinitely more urgent and engrossing than any of the contemporary-set ones.

5. Tuya's Marriage (Quanan Wang, 2006)
I was highly pissed-off by the MIFF programmers' decision to give this delicate, textured Golden-Bear-winning gem from China/Mongolia two afternoon screenings, while David freakin'-November-release-date Lynch hogged two prime time sessions. Quanan Wang's ode to resilient womanhood in the midst of male idiocy in rural Mongolia is a thing of rare beauty. And I'm paranoid as all hell it will get buried in festivals while arthouse hipsters around the world spend their time reading too much into new work by moderately hollow American stylists.

4. The Silence (Ingmar Bergman, 1963)
After enduring a few too many moody abortions by contemporary auteurs, it was a treat to take in (for the first time) this slow-burning, intense mood piece by the Master. Ingrid Thulin does subtle, majestic things as the cancerous, repressed sister holidaying in an unnamed, presumably Eastern-European country with her younger, more amply-bosomed one. It's Bergman-by-numbers, which never fails to get me very excited. It doesn't appear as striking or visionary today as it very well may have in the early 60s (it's even - pecuiliarly for Bergman - simplistic at times), though it retains a freshness, along with the formidable claim to cinema's first (and second) truly great sex scene.

3. The Ballad of Narayama (Shohei Imamura, 1983)
Not long ago I referred to this as Imamura's most famous film - which I stand by - and probably his best - which I soon discovered it wasn't. But it's a bawdy, sticky, sharp and eager look into death and man's baser instincts, which Imamura treats with the focus, concentration and articulation they are rarely afforded. Delightful and haunting.

2. Intentions of Murder (Shohei Imamura, 1964)
This is Imamura's best: a rich, dense, often startling portrait of a fleshy, uneducated lower-class housewife's day-to-day struggle to maintain a modicum of dignity in an environment where dignity is continually claimed and advertised, though only nominally maintained. Imamura is, as ever, generous with the sex and violence - as he ought to be, since the major matter on his mind is the clash between natural impulse and social convention, particularly among society's disenfranchised. Just as arresting as his subject matter is the idiosyncratic perspective he consistently adopts in the staging of scenes, consummately skilled as he is at drawing humour and tension (simultaneously) from absurd but all too palatable circumstances, all the while remaining utterly, commendably resentful of sentimentality and didacticism.

1. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (Cristian Mungiu, 2007)
What a terrific year 2007 is turning out to be: it's already plopped out what in my dumbfounded eyes appear to be two astonishing, intensely perfect masterpieces. And how's about one of them being a Romanian abortion drama (and the other The Simpsons Movie!). Unfolding across a few hours not long before the decline of Causescu's Romania, Cristian Mungiu's wrenching tale of two university students going about an illegal abortion may be the two most vividly horrific hours you'll ever spend in a cinema. It's as much an urban tragedy as it is a snapshot of a tattered, festering society, written, directed and performed with miraculous insight and subtlety. It's not only one of the great films of the decade, but one of the great films, period. It's also the first instalment in a series of Romanian films, ironically titled Tales of the Golden Age. (And it gives me a very warm feeling to watch an obscure Eastern European country experience a New Wave of its own.)

And of course, Imamura's The Pornographers (1966) would have placed here also, had I not already seen it on DVD.

So no more talk of MIFF for a year, I promise.

It was the best of MIFFs, it was the worst of MIFFs - Really it was the best of MIFFs

Firstly, to get the mediocrities out of the way, in order from least offensive to most:

10. I Served the King of England
The man who made Closely Watched Trains has evidently run out of inspiration, resorting as he has to this cutesy, hollow quirkfest about a Czech Nazi collaborator.

9. Zoo
It's important of course to acknowledge the sadness, mourning and displacement of 'zoo's. But how about the utter bizarreness of a man dying from being anally penetrated by a horse. Devor sees none. If there ever was a pink elephant in the room..

8. The Man from London
Based on my first exposure to a Bela Tarr joint, I refuse to worship at his crowded altar. An indescribably indulgent, self-important wank-fest. The wrong way to mount a mood piece.

7. My Friend and His Wife
From a silly but likable rom-com it devolves into a silly, malnourished melodrama.

6. Hana
I'm not among Hirokazu's devout followers, but I appreciated both After Life and especially Nobody Knows to some extent. This - his attempted plunge into the mainstream - bored me shitless.

5. Khadak
Look at the tree! It's crying!

4. The Mourning Forest
Naomi Kawase blends two film festival staples: the glacial pace that symbolises the unwieldy vastness of life; and the unlikely inter-generational connection formed between two grieving, alienated (and wooden) strangers. She also hopes that you'll mistake alternately serene and eerie vegetation for alternately serene and eerie filmmaking.

3. Times and Winds
The perfect afternoon for your arthouse-loving grandma: solemn fathers, cute children, an exotic but thoroughly hygenic setting and antiseptic postcard imagery.

2. 4 Elements
Or was it "Filthy Men Performing Soul-Numbing Labour in Isolated Regions of the World"?

1. Bella
Essentially a feature-length student film. You can just feel the misguided lecturer telling his misguided disciple: 'increase the stakes! make her pregnant! make her unemployed! make them brothers!' That this won Toronto disturbs me to no end.

Now on to the quality stuff, which was abundant across the 19 days. Difficult as it was to come up with 10 films I utterly disliked, it's near-impossible to narrow down the ones I liked and/or loved to a list of the 10 best. So, first I must give honorable mentions (in ascending order of honour) to:
- Beauty in Trouble
And Jan Hrebejk's uncanny sense for juicy material.
- Away from Her
Sarah Polley's lovely, touching elegy to the love between Julie Christie and her committed husband as she succumbs to Alzheimer's.
- Time
Another clever little concept by Kim Ki-duk, pulled off with signature skill.
- Reprise
I went into this movie based on a Slant Magazine thumbs-up, and even so, I was dreading it as I'll always be dreading the notion of first-time filmmakers exploring the lives of twentysomething writers/painters/photographers/performance artists. But this was a lovely surprise.
- Red Road
I adore women but another thing I inevitably dread is first-time women filmmakers exploring female protagonists with troubled sex lives (not because they shouldn't - in fact, they ought to - but because they often turn out derivative of each other), but Andrea Arnold is no hack. Her first feature is certainly flawed, but superbly crafted and very promising.
- Still Life
Jia Zhang-ke's Golden Lion winner is underdeveloped in the script and characterisation departments, but its visuals are startling. The evocative gorgeousness of every frame of every composition catches you offguard because it's so low-key and unshowy.
- Half Moon
Bahman Ghobadi is one of my favourite working filmmakers, even more so after this odd, mournful and remarkably well-acted (by non-actors!) ode to his fellow oppressed Kurds.
- You, the Living
Ditto, Roy Andersson - a singular, underworked talent, here essentially delivering more of the same (as his striking Songs from the Second Floor [2000]) and bringing me much joy.
- The War Tapes
Deborah Scranton's urgent, thought-provoking documentary, where with great care and deliberation she assembles footage shot by several members of the National Guard, while on service in Iraq. It benefits enormously from not being yet another variation on the self-serving, aggressively leftist, preaching-to-the-converted Iraq doc (which has now become a genre in itself).
- The Night of the Sunflowers
It's disturbing that the satisfying feeling that a clever, tightly plotted, thoroughly entertaining thriller gives is today rare enough to make it a revelation.

I'll post my Official MIFF Top 10

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The Simpsons Movie (David Silverman, 2007)


I'm a Simpsons nut to the extent that I even enjoy most of the new episodes. I was never going to be the most objective viewer of the movie. So that I loved every second of it probably means nothing to the greater world. All I can tell you in my defence is that my stomach literally began to hurt from laughing around the time Ralph Wiggum was singing along to the 20th Century Fox jingle and the pain didn't get a chance to subside before that final crack about what 4 years of film school gets you (hello!). What a great year 2007 is turning out to be - it's already come up with a Romanian abortion drama and a Simpsons movie, both note-perfect. I'm confused by the latter's 80% at Metacritic - was it possible to have reservations about it? Marginally more objective comments to follow. (Ditto, the MIFF wrap-up - I forgot how swamped with work I get right after the festival.)

Sunday, August 12, 2007

MIFF has ended on a high note (for me)

With a special screening of Ingmar Bergman's jaw-dropping The Silence. (And the end of MIFF also means I finally get the chance to program an Ingmar Bergman retrospective in my very own lounge room.)

Today I also caught:

Jellyfish (Shira Geffen, Etgar Keret, 2007)

The Mourning Forest (Naomi Kawase, 2007)

After the Wedding (Susanne Bier, 2006)

Paprika (Satoshi Kon, 2006)

Comments to follow (tomorrow, most likely).

Overall, it's been an impressive year - a vast improvement on the previous, generally paltry one. I sat through 61 sessions in total (missed my personal record by 4). I wish I didn't go against my better judgment and sit through so many ponderous mood pieces by well-regarded directors who should know better. But the moody abortions were a minority, and fortunately obliterated in my memory by the particularly great works of Shohei Imamura, tonight's Bergman classic, a pile of contemporary Asian gems, a solid amount of European ones, and - above all - that Romanian abortion drama. To counterpoint MIFF withdrawal symptoms, I'll draft up my Top 10 MIFF-list tomorrow.