As usual, the biggest surprises came in small packages: One year after the soulless razzle dazzle of Chicago wowed Oscar voters, Robert Altman shows us how it’s really done with his elegant The Company; and two fables, Jim Sheridan’s In America and Tim Burton’s Big Fish, put to shame the hip 21 Grams and nasty Barbarian Invasions, respectively. It wasn’t a bad year for movies exactly. The indie circuit saw its fair share of dogs (Pieces of April, House of Sand and Fog and, umm, Dog Days) but it was a great year for Gus Van Sant (Gerry and Elephant) and documentaries: Spellbound made all the money but it’s Nicolas Philibert’s To Be and to Have that’s the real testament to the innocence of childhood; Errol Morris’s terrifying The Fog of War reminds us how close our political leaders have repeatedly brought us to death; Bus 174 ponders the complex relationship between real life and reality television; and Jennifer Dworkin’s compassionate Love and Diane celebrates one family’s determination to forgive each other and the system that repeatedly gets in their way. As for the holiday war films (Cold Mountain, Master and Commander and The Last Samurai), none can hold a candle to Balseros, Carlos Bosch and David Trueba’s humanist ode to Cuban perseverance. Well, one almost does. New Line’s The Return of the King is a flawed but ravishing work of mythic restoration. Take that, Andy and Larry Wachowski!
1. The Company (Robert Altman)
Robert Altman’s The Company observes life inside the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago, where dancers and their instructors prepare to mount an elaborate super-production called the “Blue Snake” (essentially a self-devouring version of Julie Taymor’s The Lion King). It’s unlikely that the film will appeal to the same crowds that swooned for the director’s equally fascinating but more “plot-driven” Gosford Park, or those bamboozled by the soulless razzle-dazzle of last year’s Chicago—which is a shame considering how this elegant movement in still life unravels as a profound metaphor for both the filmmaking process and life itself. Altman reveres dance in the same way Chicago uses it as a bludgeoning device. And like Mike Leigh’s Topsy-Turvy, The Company also allows Altman to vicariously discuss the way he makes movie.
2. Gerry (Gus Van Sant)
Gus Van Sant’s Gerry is a ravishing mix of mystic fairy tale, modern-day alienation and gay allegory. By film’s end, the two Gerrys played by Casey Affleck and Matt Damon humorously reference the film’s existential quest before it quickly turns into crisis. As the young men move slowly across the desert, a ravishing hallucination seemingly ushers them into a cosmic netherworld. It’s here that they must negotiate an icy and expansive rift between themselves and civilization. One man facilitates the other’s spiritual journey and, as he stares into the heavenly horizon, there’s a notion that he has freed himself from the burdens of a cloying and weaker version of himself. Not since his first film, Mala Noche, has Van Sant produced something so pure, uncompromising and ravishing to watch.
3. Balseros (Carlos Bosch and José María Doménech)
Carlos Bosch and José María Doménech’s Balseros gives a very human face to the horror of two separate Cuban refugee debacles. In 1994, an especially disgusted Fidel Castro would open Cuba’s doors for a second time in less than 15 years. The filmmakers, though, are less concerned with the politics of the situation than they are with how a group of oppressed Cubans used this window of opportunity to escape their island prison. Bosch and Doménech were reporters for Spain’s TV3, the first station to arrive in Cuba after the “balseros crisis” broke out. What could have been a simple five-minute segment on the crisis has become a two-hour celebration of Cuban perseverance. Balseros is a humanist work that puts even the best Hollywood epic to shame.
4. Big Fish (Tim Burton)
Critics have already been comparing Tim Burton’s new film Big Fish to Forrest Gump, which is somewhat of a mis-association. American history happens to a passive Tom Hanks in Robert Zemeckis’s endearing but naïve Oscar-winner. In Big Fish, Edward Bloom (Ewan McGregor) happens to the American pastoral. In many ways, comparisons to Denys Arcand’s heinous The Barbarian Invasions are more appropriate. Both films center around a father-son disconnect, but only one truly attempts to understand the rocky relationship between parents and children. More positively, the film also plays out as a magical realist companion to Emir Kusturica’s towering parable Underground, which similarly challenged the way we watch movies. This is love and death, Burton style.
5. The Son (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne)
The latest film by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne is not without allegorical implications. Cannes Best Actor winner and Dardenne mascot Olivier Gourmet stars as a bereft carpenter who develops a sudden fascination for his young apprentice. As mirror reflection of Gourmet’s inner turmoil, the Dardennes’ camerawork isn’t as assaultive as it was in Rosetta, but it’s equally demanding. Their camera contributes to the film’s near cosmic state of grace. The Son or, more accurately, How Joseph Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Judas Iscariot, is a testament to Christian forgiveness, and our willingness to submit to the film’s grueling element of fear becomes a measure of our spiritual skepticism. Despite the film’s overwhelming bleakness, its Bressonian human spirit is unmistakable.
6. Millennium Actress (Satoshi Kon)
Behold Millennium Actress, Satoshi Kon’s anime answer to Mulholland Drive. This radical work by the director of Perfect Blue mainlines into a cosmic crawlspace between reality and fantasy from which it never leaves. Kon’s love for his animated diva is supreme and he plays her romantic saga for delirious world-weary sorrow. The genius of the film is infinite: the practically monochrome palette that slowly saturates color as the film moves forward in time; the meta-cinematic conceits Kon employs in order to have the film’s male documentary filmmaker penetrate what is supposedly an older Japanese actress’s recollection of her own past; and the countless rhetorical shifts that evoke the woman’s projection of her romantic melodrama onto her art. Millennium Actress is a love poem to the movies.