It was a year for looking back. Directors Francois Ozon and Todd Haynes looked to Douglas Sirk for inspiration for 8 Women and Far from Heaven, respectively. Martin Scorsese visited early New York, John Sayles unearthed the ghosts of the Old South, Stephen Daldry hung out with a sapphic Virginia Woolf, Paul Thomas Anderson put Adam Sandler in a Jerry Lewis suit, and Eminem returned to his Detroit roots. France was the “it” locale of the year. While Tsai Ming-liang’s ghosts jumped back and forth between Taipei and Paris (What Time Is It There?), Claire Denis’s vampires stayed put, waiting for their victims to come to them (Trouble Every Day). Jonathan Demme and Brian De Palma took the bait, tapping into their early glory days and making two of the best Hollywood films of the year. David Cronenberg caught memories and echoes of Dead Ringers in his fragile Spider while Roman Polanski negotiated his youth in the Warsaw ghetto via the eyes of The Pianist. Others, though, were looking toward the future. My Big Fat Greek Wedding made more money than Monsoon Wedding which made more money than Late Marriage which featured one of the hottest sex scenes ever put on film. Jack Nicholson, George Clooney and Phillip Seymour Hoffman lost wives and took their pain across the space and time continuum to either offensive or pretentious effect. As far as tales of grief went, the most intimate came from Spike Lee, whose 25th Hour delicately engaged the ghosts of 9/11 during a series of tender blame games. Post-Osama, Michael Moore took our culture of fear to task. Oprah loved his Bowling for Columbine but there’s no word yet from the White House on whether George W. Bush will catch a screening before firing on Iraq. Ed Gonzalez
1. Far from Heaven (Todd Haynes)
Far from Heaven opens with a dissolve between a canvas painting of a tree branch and its real-life representation, a stylistic flourish that immediately calls attention to the mechanism at work in this melodrama. Like Douglas Sirk before him, Todd Haynes is fascinated with the thin lines that separate the world from an idealized version of reality and the paths of resistance that lie therein. At a local art exhibition, Cathy Whitaker (Julianne Moore) bumps into her African-American gardener, Raymond Deagan (Dennis Haysbert). He teaches her to interpret the Picassos and Mirós that hang on the walls and observes how modern art has pared religious art down to simple shapes and colors. Again, Haynes calls attention to the expressive elements at work in this magnificent experiment, the “smoke and mirrors” of the film’s mise-en-scène that demand decodification. Throughout Far from Heaven, Haynes suggests that there is no need for labels (gay and straight, black and white, inside and outside) if people are willing to listen to others.
2. Spider (David Cronenberg)
The film itself feels as if it’s been woven from the silk of Spider’s (Ralph Fiennes) memories, and as such it threatens to break at any given moment because, despite the rigorousness of its look, the raw material with which it is assembled is devastatingly fragile. Spider’s interaction with the past is an erotic ritual that reveals a Madonna/Whore complex born from the moment when the young Spider saw his doting mother (Miranda Richardson) modeling a blue nightie. The boy’s overwhelming Oedipal tension informs his view of all women and the devastating effects of their sex. Despite the obvious Freudian machinations at work here, Cronenberg slightly reworks the particulars of the Oedipal complex. But for a film so rich in metaphors and allusions to webs, Spider is never suffocated by technique or its formal artifice. Like all great films, Spider demands to be seen again so that its many ambiguities can be fully sorted out.
3. What Time Is It There (Tsai Ming-liang)
The emotionally disconnected characters of Tsai Ming-liang’s What Time Is It There? wade through their sterile Taipei surroundings hopelessly grasping for a piece of human comfort. After the death of the film’s patriarchal figure (Mio Tien, aesthetically entrapped in the film’s lonely opening scene), his wife (Lu Yi-Ching) and son (Hsiao Kang) become victims of the mundane and the repetitive: she to reincarnation and he to bottles and plastic bags-turned-urine depositories (he’s afraid to go to the bathroom at night for fear of bumping into his father’s spirit). Tsai’s compositional elements owe as much to Ozu and Antonioni as his penchant for silence is indebted to Bresson. A burst of sexual activity simultaneously rocks the lives of the film’s frigid heroes; the irony, though, is that their perceived comfort becomes indistinguishable from the film’s otherwise mundane experiences.
4. Femme Fatale (Brian De Palma)
Brian De Palma’s formal obsession with allusions to seeing and sightlessness have forever brought to mind the works of Dario Argento, perhaps the only other living director who can create and sustain the kind of delirious artifice on fierce display in Femme Fatale. While its Cannes Film Festival sequence must count as one of the most impressive set pieces ever orchestrated for the screen, it’s the opening long shot that deserves special mention: Laure Ash (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos) watching Double Indemnity on French television, studying Barbara Stanwyck and rewriting herself as a modern femme fatale. Laure packs a gun and a one-liner or two, challenging the way men perceive women and using that perception to consume and spit out her men.
5. Spirited Away (Hayao Miyazaki)
In Spirited Away, 10-year-old Chihiro and her parents drive through a remote area of Japan and stumble upon an imaginary world hidden within the walls of an abandoned amusement park. When her gluttonous parents are turned into pigs, the young girl plans their escape from the witchy Yubaba’s health resort with the help of the Haku, a young boy capable of turning into a flying beast. Hayao Miyazaki has a way of losing himself to his imagination, a process that’s often frustrating though never less than exhilarating to behold. Plot here takes a backseat to set pieces that flow into each other, stream-of-conscious-like. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a moment on film this year more textured and exhilarating than Chihiro bathing the Stink God at Yubaba’s resort. Chihiro unearths a River God beneath the Stink and is rewarded for her kind effort; Miyazaki, all the while, subtly illuminates the young girl’s bourgeoning desires.