The Interesting in 2006
(I am only listing films that released in 2006 in their original country of release. I have found all of these films the ‘most interesting’ as narratives, political explorations, and in general for their
cinematic language. I do not list these in any order as I always find such lists impossible to do beyond a point.)
1)The Lives of Others
My personal favorite for the year. A gripping narrative fused with a remarkable meditation on ethics, aesthetics and the relations between the two in a politically repressive climate. Ultimately the film is about the ‘justice’ that transcends all three categories and forever orients one towards the ‘other’.
This is not dissmilar to the Lives of Others in its central concerns. Nietsche famously stated that “we need art lest we should perish of the truth.” This is doubly ironic precisely because ‘art’ and ‘life’ might not be as neatly separable as the lexicon might suggest. And in very complementary ways both Pan’s Labyrinth and the Lives of Others are reflections on this equation. But especially the former with its fable-like quality.
Following once more in the wake of Antonioni, Zhang Ke Jia fashions a powerful narrative about the loss of ‘home’ in the post-industrial present, and the struggle to retain any sense of identity in the face of a devastated physical environment. The film is filled with bare landscapes and architectural solitudes and allegorically functions as a search for the very ‘being’ of the ‘human’
4)Children of Men
This movie did not make my list initially but on revisiting it I have found it to be more interesting than I initially though. I still find it relatively unengaging on an emotional level but this might be a strength of the film given that so much of it is about the ’sterile’. The film certainly puts up a mirror to our very ‘ugly’ present in various ways in the guise of predicting a rather disturbing future. I am indebted to Zizek who on the DVD version offers a rather succinct and probing reading of the film.
Even for Lynch this film is radically experimental. Hard to characterise in any meaningful sense it might best be described as an orgiastic and ultimately overwhelming plumbing of the unconscious. Perhaps an essay in ‘identity’, perhaps one on the schizoid modern self, perhaps simply a vision of apocalypse, it is in any case unfathomable beyond a point but all the more powerful as one cannot but yield to it. One might be forgiven for finding it rather indulgent and excessive!
6)The Page Turner
This exquisitely precise French thriller is a work that Chabrol could easily have made. A superb tale of revenge, at once haunting and disturbing, the film adds marvellously to a history of French cinema that has followed in Hitchcock’s wake.
Almodovar’s most deceptive film. A further chapter in his ever expanding universe of women and conversely shrinking world of men. This re-mapping of gender politics within the cinematic with parricide/matricide alternating with homage might yet turn out to be the most radical directorial gesture of our times.
8)Days of Glory
In a sense this film does in far more delicate and sophisticated fashion what it takes Eastwood his twin war films to do. This is not to demean Eastwood’s accomplishment but Bouchareb’s remarkable film is not just an anti-war statement but also an extremely thoughtful meditation on notions of the ‘local/native’ versus the ‘foreign(er)’ (the French titles is Indigenes) and the interplay of these two categories in the most elaborate way. How nations make insiders out of outsiders and vice versa is the specific theme of this work and as Bouchareb shows us ‘colonialism’ alters all of these already problematic issues in complex ways. Not the least among these films strengths is the extent to which it seems to cast a light on our ‘present’.
9)After the Wedding
I have not been a fan of Susanne Bier’s earlier work but this film is a rather moving reflection on ‘paternity’ and the messiness of familial ties. The narrative additionally fuses these concerns with a reflection on ‘East-West’ and ‘North-South’ questions and the nature of philanthropic desire.
Another ‘huge’ statement on the ‘present’. The most unsettling film of the year. The global reach of the film is held together not by narrative logic as much as by an ‘affective’ whole and a ’shot heard around the world’. A fine essay on the ‘economies’ of globalisation.
If one leaves aside the films of Kiorastami this is easily one of the finest films to have come out of Iran. Beautifully shot, Antonionesque both in its cinematographic choices as well as in its themes, the film is truly poetic.
This film is a more persuasive representation of American suburbia than just about any other exploration on this terrain.
Scorsese’s most expansive statement on the economy of violence.
Aronovsky’s compelling New Age fantasia, is replete with the metaphysical and the mystical and themes range from the Buddha to Faust! The director handles it all with a certain lightness. The visuals are often stunning, the music always sublime.
15)The Wind That Shakes the Barley
Ken Loach offers in Wind that Shakes the barley a marvellously comprehensive and clear-headed view of the Irish struggle. A gripping narrative is combined with a rich tapestry to create a ‘fuller’ account of the subject than any prior to this and the director handles all the ‘interests’ here with remarkable dispassion. The visual texture of the film is ‘romantic’, the politics less than this and Loach constantly plays these off each other.
16(Flags of our Fathers/Letters from Iwo Jima
Eastwood’s diptych (to borrow a critic’s term) comprised of Flags of Our fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima offers one of the boldest treatments of war in cinematic history. As an ethical act these complementary films might even be unequalled. The director resorts to a language of humanism that often seems to verge on the simplistic but this is a rather cunning gesture on his part that specially in the latter film makes identification with the ‘other’ complete. The ‘American’ or the ’self’ (to wit) becomes either a tragic example of ‘innocence lost’ (Flags of our Fathers) or more profoundly ‘alien’ (Letters from Iwo Jima). With one eye trained on the present Eastwood on the one hand lays bare the business and cynicism of war as practised on the American side and on the other hand gives the enemy heroism and dignity by way of the classic Hollywood war film format.
17)Private Fears in Public Places
Resnais’s film offers striking, ambivalent, and totally heartfelt vignettes of couples without the prop of total narratives in each case. With beautiful transitions the director crafts a somewhat deceptive film that acquires a rather mysterious hue as it moves along.
18)The Illusionist/The Prestige
I tend to think of these as complementary works. Nolan’s the Prestige forms an interesting counterpoint to the Illusionist. As opposed to the Illusionist being about ‘magic’ and ‘magic’ being something in the film, the Prestige fuses the art of magic with the art of cinema. The latter with its numerous twists is structurally like a magic show even if it doesn’t seem emotionally as involving as the former. I would like to think though that here again the work is a bit like a magic show! If we truly empathised with these characters we would perhaps gain the kind of access into the film (Nolan’s box of magic) that the director doesn’t want to grant us. We are always on the outside, dazzled and puzzled, this is how it should be. In fact Nolan’s point in this vein might even be that too much identification with characters or situations in a film leaves us less alert to the ‘artifice’ involved. To re-iterate the Illusionist is the more spontaneous and more satisfying work but the Prestige is the more complex attempt and perhaps the one that will reward re-viewing to a great degree.
There’s another tangential point here. Both the Illusionist and the Prestige are period pieces. Perhaps cinema (as symptom of the modern) destroys ‘magic’ once and for all. No magic trick can match the artifice of cinema. And no magic trick can seem quite as impressive to those soaked in the ‘tricks’ of cinema.
19)I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone
Tsai Ming-Liang’s latest film much like a lot of his previous work takes Antonioni’s Red Desert as the starting point. At the same time the director belongs to a group of Asian auteurs who provide the seemingly improbable intersection of Antonioni and Ozu in their respective works. This current film is an enormous commentary on ‘a’ modernity by way of the urban squalor of Kuala Lumpur. This near-silent film relies on haunting imagery to examine its themes.
This is a terrific action/adventure film from Gibson and stays gripping from beginning to end. One might consider it questionable on ‘anthropological’ grounds, detect an older Hollywood genealogy here of the ‘racist-exotic’ but the film is ultimately not a serious statement as such and perhaps free of the latter charge to the extent that the ‘contexts’ here are not the same.
Nure Bilge Ceylan ‘re-writes’ L’Avventura without the mystery in this remarkable film that centers around a deteriorating relationship. Marvelously framed and poignantly acted the director makes a finer film here than his earlier Distant.
22)Lights in the Dusk
Aki Kaurismaki is perhaps a greater talent than Jim Jarmusch on much the same terrain. His mixture of a minimalist aesthetic with black humor is usually pitch perfect. Lights in the Dusk is a perfect example of this. Once again Antonioni lurks in the background.
Mahmet-Saleh Haroun after the interesting Abouna fashions a remarkable tale of revenge and forgiveness amidst the stark desert landscapes of Chad and the solitude of its urban life.
24)Syndromes and a Century
Weerasethukal is fast emerging as one of the most compelling chroniclers of our ‘post’modernity and one that at least in cinema seems to increasingly reveal the trace of Antonioni. This work is possibly the director’s best.
Kim Di-Kuk adds another chapter to the range of his fairly disturbing films. This film might properly be seen as a response to Teshigahara’s Face of Another. Both films are potent fantasies.
Pascale Ferran offers not just the best version of this novel but simply one of the best treatments of the erotic in cinematic history. The novel is not a particularly significant work (except as a controversial chapter of Western cultural history) but the film comes close to being an important one with its economy of minimalism.
An improbable marriage of Hamlet and Chinese action choreography and it makes for a heady mix even if this is not the most profound Shakespeare interpretation.
A somewhat unevenly plotted though ultimately moving film about the shattering of the personal by the political and the role of memory in determining each.
29)Dreams of Dust
This African debut film set in Burkina-Faso is a truly haunting work involving profound existential themes in a part of the world that offers the very definition of liminality as indeed the characters in the film do.
(The scores on The Lives of Others, Letters from Iwo Jima, Volver, Babel, The Fountain, Private Fears in Public Spaces stand out; the Fountain is the year’s best; with Ming-Liang’s film I had the more personal pleasure of hearing Tamil, one by way of a music video from a film!)