The melancholy that’s supposed to shroud the end of a century—romantic myth or self-fulfilling prophecy? These unending literary adaptations—are they a way for films to convince themselves of their lasting importance? Half the movies on my list use the medium to reflect either on temps perdu or on the decade when the motion picture age began or, in some cases, both. (There are also films that are just great movies.) For months, people in the business have been complaining about what a lousy year this was for movies. Make that “American movies,” pally—it was a vintage year for imports. Long may they arrive.
1. ‘Fragments * Jerusalem’
Ron Havilio’s monumental home movie is at once a family photo album and a national pageant; exploring his native city, the Israeli filmmaker is both flaneur and time traveler. The streets of Jerusalem’s old city are saturated with remembrance and, as current events have made amply clear, one needn’t strain to make these phantoms contemporary. Although the Walter Reade had the guts to give this six-hour epic a theatrical run, the audience was surely diminished thanks to the casually dismissive notice by the fifth- or sixth-string reviewer at The New York Times.
2. ‘Time Regained’
Fragments * Jerusalem is profoundly anachronistic—among other things, it preserves the sense that motion pictures are a medium of (and not only for) preservation. Raúl Ruiz ponders the same paradox of memories fixed in emulsion—what Gilberto Perez has called the “material ghost”—in his eccentric and triumphant meditation on the labyrinthine volume that brings Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time to its magnificent conclusion. It’s posh material to be sure, although Ruiz still manages to project a certain cultural disrepute—the flavor of a third-world Last Year at Marienbad.
3. ‘The House of Mirth’
It’s keeping me up nights: Have I surrendered to the Merchants of Masterpiece Theater? Another unlikely literary adaptation, this Terence Davies costumer treats Edith Wharton’s bleak society satire as material for a Mizoguchi geisha drama—the tragic heroine is tricked, abused, or betrayed by almost every character she meets. Davies resists the idealizing soft-focus glamour or nostalgic, ostentatious opulence of similar period pieces. This is no fetishized lost world but one that is fiercely, uncomfortably present.
4. ‘The Wind Will Carry Us’
Abbas Kiarostami’s deadpan comedy of offscreen presences and disembodied voices effortlessly incorporates aspects of documentary and confessional filmmaking into an unforced, open-ended parable. That it strikes me as the Iranian director’s strongest feature to date has something to do with his use of classical film language to transform barely anecdotal material into a mysteriously metaphysical vision.
5. ‘Beau Travail’
“I’ve found an idea for a novel,” a Godard character once announced. “Not to write the life of a man, but only life, life itself. What there is between people . . . space, sound, and colors.” His words could describe Claire Denis’s sensational transposition of Billy Budd to a French Foreign Legion post on the Horn of Africa. This movie could be projected upside down and backwards, it would still look great.
Beau Travail‘s perfect double-feature complement is similarly set in an all-male military universe, but rather than a rapt meditation on the erotic obsession that one officer develops for an individual soldier, Nagisa Oshima’s Taboo is more detached and analytical in its concern with love’s flowering within a repressive system. Japan’s greatest living filmmaker had not made a theatrical feature in 14 years—who could have predicted this action film, at once baroque and austere, hypnotic and opaque? (And hats off to New Yorker Films, which released this, Beau Travail, The Wind Will Carry Us, and Fragments * Jerusalem.)
7. ‘Shadow of the Vampire’
Another comeback, this one for cult director E. Elias Merhige, and another self-conscious rumination on the medium, this uncanny pastiche is far funnier and more resonant than its absurd premise would suggest. (Reviewed this week.)
8. ‘Suzhou River’
On paper, transplanting Vertigo to Shanghai sounds scarcely more promising than Shadow of the Vampire‘s recycled Nosferatu; on the screen, Lou Ye’s Suzhou River (named for what amounts to an urban stream of consciousness) looks fabulous. Indeed, this adroit, concise, poetic city symphony is almost too stylish for its own good.
Takeshi Kitano, Japan’s king of all media, is a man with more than one face: There’s the tough guy, the funnyman, and the rank sentimentalist. The overpraised Fireworks attempted a synthesis; the unfairly dismissed Kikujiro does the same thing to funnier, more complex effect. A true film maudit, this superficially mawkish fairy tale is subverted by a remarkable combination of comic brutality, acute formalism, and inconsolable sorrow.
10. ‘The Little Girl Who Sold the Sun’
The last film by Senegalese filmmaker Djibril Diop Mambéty (1945-98) is a wondrously affirmative marketplace legend-cum-political allegory about an indomitable crippled girl, granddaughter of a blind street singer, who reinvents herself as a newspaper vendor. The score is infectious, and the metaphor overwhelming.
A baker’s dozen honorable mentions, all more or less tied for 11th place: Cast Away(Robert Zemeckis, U.S.); George Washington (David Gordon Green, U.S.); Ghost Dog (Jim Jarmusch, U.S.); Hamlet (Michael Almereyda, U.S.); The Idiots (Lars von Trier, Denmark); Kippur (Amos Gitai, Israel); Lies (Jang Sun Woo, South Korea); Pola X (Leos Carax, France); Praise(John Curran, Australia); The Specialist (Eyal Sivan, Israel); Two Family House (Raymond De Felitta, U.S.); Yi Yi (Edward Yang, Taiwan); and the fight scenes from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Yuen Wo-ping, U.S.-China).