(originally published in The Outreach Connection in December 2007)
Here are my favourite ten films released in Toronto this year. It was a pretty good year, although this list didn’t come together quite as easily as last year’s – the last two choices below might easily change tomorrow, and then again the day after that. Apologies to any masterpieces released in the last few days of the year. Happy New Year!
4 months, 3 weeks and 2 days (Cristian Mungiu)
Mungiu’s remarkable film won the top prize at Cannes, and would likely deserve the Oscar. It’s about a young Romanian student who helps her roommate obtain an abortion, and I can’t recall a film that illustrates certain aspects of this procedure more clearly. The film is realistic, and realistically depressing, an anthropological eye-opener, and afterwards I kept mulling over its endless subtleties: the theme of physical and existential (and in particular for women, biological) confinement; its immense technical smarts, producing one breathtaking piece of execution after another. This is probably my favourite of the films included here – I wouldn’t have wanted to change a frame.
I’m Not There (Todd Haynes)
As deliberate a head-scratcher as anyone’s come up with recently, this is a meditation on the life of Bob Dylan, represented by six different actors playing different versions (or evocations) of the man at different points in his life (or different extrapolations of his myth), poetically intertwined and juxtaposed. It’s quite stunningly achieved, executed with enormous panache – it’s immensely visually and tonally varied (from pseudo documentary to utter poetic association), a constant tumble of allusion and connection. Sometimes it’s a bit gimmicky of course, but even when you don’t understand some of Haynes’ choices they’re intriguingly executed and thematically provocative within the overall scheme.
Inland Empire (David Lynch)
I didn’t give Lynch’s reworking of Mulholland Drive that glowing a review at the time, but of all these films, it’s the one I most wanted to see again quickly. Lynch of course has an unparalleled activity to evoke menace and lurking threats, and to create a sense of some underlying coherence no matter how the films’ raw elements dispute that. Inland Empire, shot on digital video with an often-grainy image quality, is suffused in this tone. Focusing on the intertwined inner and outer realities of an actress played by Laura Dern, it sustains its project over three hours, suggesting an almost limitless capacity for further revelation, or confusion, the two being much the same in this case. Still, I’m not sure what else can possibly lie for Lynch in this direction.
Lady Chatterley (Pascale Ferran)
Running almost three hours, this French version of the D. H. Lawrence novel is an extremely detailed observation of the frustrated Connie’s sexual and emotional awakening, via an increasingly passionate affair with the gamekeeper on her disabled husband’s vast estate. This is very much a woman’s story, and has been criticized in some quarters for what might be seen as wishy-washy romanticism (and in others for overlooking Lawrence’s social consciousness). But if you submit to Ferran’s sometimes-quirky perspective, and to the mesmerizingly detailed performance by lead actress Marina Hands (who also won the top French award), it’s extremely satisfying.
Letters from Iwo Jima (Clint Eastwood)
Eastwood’s second Iwo Jima film of last year opened here in January, focusing on the Japanese soldiers hopelessly assigned to defend that wretched island. Much more stark and pained than its predecessor Flags of our Fathers, it drives home how Flags – for all its apparent respect toward American heartland values – exposes the machinations of a puffed-up, corrupt empire. It has its weaknesses, but it’s a film of great eloquence and weight, establishing the arrogance of the very concepts of winning and losing in war.
No End in Sight (Charles Ferguson)
This highly impactful documentary sets out some of the colossal errors, largely rooted in arrogance and complacency you can’t even process, behind the current mess in Iraq. Inevitably, most of the culpable parties declined to be interviewed – the main exception, who at least deserves points for being game, confirms everything you ever suspected about the cloistered indifference of the decision-making process. Much as the war continues to be debated and analyzed, Ferguson’s film reminds us that full mass recognition of the venality of what’s been visited upon us is yet to be achieved.
Offside (Jafar Panahi)
Like Iranian director Panahi’s earlier film The Circle, Offside is about the treatment of women, focusing here on their exclusion from soccer stadiums: the official explanation is that this protects them from the cursing and excesses of the excited males, but of course that’s merely rationalization. Presented almost in real time, the film is mesmerizing, and extremely subtle. Again as in The Circle, the focus on the women doesn’t preclude awareness that such an ideology traps both sexes, and there’s much humanity in the guards’ treatment of their captives. The film isn’t didactic – there’s some (albeit bleak) comedy in many of the exchanges, and the most compelling argument for change is contained simply in the energy, eloquence and commitment of the women themselves.
Ratatouille (Brad Bird)
This animated film about Remy, a French rat with a passion for gourmet cooking, is a staggering visual achievement, sending its unconstrained camera on journeys of impossibly intricate choreography: Remy is simply one of the all-time triumphs of anthropomorphism – immensely sympathetic, but always very plainly a rat. Most of all, apart from doing a stellar job of promoting the merits of good, natural food, it’s transcendent in its insistence that artistic achievement can spring from the least likely of sources. In this regard, Ratatouille is a perfect marriage of form and content – for doubters like me, it’s not quite as miraculous as a dreamy meal cooked up by a rodent, but it’s in the ballpark.
Control (Anton Corbijn)
This is about Joy Division’s Ian Curtis, who killed himself in 1980 at the age of 23, on the eve of the band’s first trip to the US. Directed by Corbijn (a renowned rock photographer who knew Curtis well) in pristine black and white, this is a deliberately downbeat but highly skilled telling; you’ve probably never seen a rock biopic so immune to the thrill of performing and all that goes with it. It allows us a general sense of Curtis’ inspirations and frustrations, but it’s ineffably mysterious, with a sullied, thwarted hope at its centre.
The Lives of Others (Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck)
This won the Best Foreign Film Oscar this year, and is a most worthy entry in Germany’s continuing dissection of its taxing past century. Set in 1984 East Germany, a stiff-necked Stasi (secret police) officer is given a surveillance assignment, to uncover the suspected subversive activities of a notable playwright and his girlfriend, an esteemed actress. The complications that follow make for a fascinating narrative, loaded with significant moral and political weight. The film depicts a ruling system that’s totally lost its ideological bearings, serving only to crush or warp everyone within it, although it’s also about the power of art in a totalitarian state.