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.