The big, fat year in movies

A ‘slightly jaundiced’ look at the best and worst of 2002

ROYAL ENSEMBLE<br>Gene Hackman led a top notch cast of comedy ensemble players including Luke Wilson, Ben Stiller and Gwyneth Paltrow in Wes Anderson’s lovably quirky The Royal Tenenbaums.

Gene Hackman led a top notch cast of comedy ensemble players including Luke Wilson, Ben Stiller and Gwyneth Paltrow in Wes Anderson’s lovably quirky The Royal Tenenbaums.

If you go by what you could see in local theaters, 2002 was not a particularly good year movie-wise. But if you go by all the stuff that you could see by other means, and via video in particular, it was a very interesting year indeed.

From an only slightly jaundiced perspective, you might say that 2002 was a year of dreary remakes, recycled formula pieces and instantly forgettable box office monsters. It was the year in which Harrison Ford mumbled his way through K-19 the Widowmaker, and the runaway success of My Big Fat Greek Wedding took screen space away from a host of other small movies, many of them more accomplished and deserving.

But if there were fewer and fewer quality foreign films in local theaters, there were more and more of them available on video—and sooner and sooner as well, in some cases. Plus, it was an unusually good year for French films, especially for moviegoers who could trek to Sacramento and the Bay Area occasionally.

Indeed, despite all the disappointments of the year in movies, I’m very much inclined to celebrate 2002 as a year in which the old folks from the French New Wave flourished once again: Jean-Luc Godard (In Praise of Love and a video edition of Keep Your Right Up!), Jacques Rivette (Va Savoir and three films on DVD), Agnes Varda (The Gleaners and I on DVD, with a one-hour sequel), Jacques Demy (the DVD edition of The Young Girls of Rochefort), Claude Chabrol (Merci Pour le Chocolat), Eric Rohmer (The Lady and the Duke), Chris Marker (the American release of his ground-breaking Immemory CD-ROM).

From where I sat, there were only nine films shown locally that I’d willingly include in a Top 10 list: Va Savoir, Waking Life, The Royal Tenenbaums, Y Tu Mamá También, 13 Conversations About One Thing, Sunshine State, The Good Girl, Punch-Drunk Love, Sex and Lucia, Rivers and Tides. Add The Cat’s Meow to make it 10. But Va Savoir, Y Tu Mamá También and Rivers and Tides stand out as the best of that bunch, by far.

That list, however, pales by comparison with the 10 best of the films that came our way on video only: Our Lady of Assassins (Colombia); Beau Travail (France), The Wind Will Carry Us (Iran), Wuthering Heights (France), What Time Is It There? (Taipei), Faithless (Sweden), Code Unknown (France), Place Vendôme (France), The Devil’s Backbone (Spain), The Lady and the Duke (France), The Piano Teacher (France).

And the next echelon of video-only films is pretty good too: Beijing Bicycle (China), The Son’s Room (Italy), Taste of Others (France), Set Me Free (Canada), La Buche (France), Les Destinées (France), CQ (USA), Storyteller (USA), Triumph of Love (UK), Lovely and Amazing (USA).

The preponderance of foreign films on these latter lists connects up in a not so happy way with the lamentable pattern of American remakes of outstanding foreign films. The American film industry marginalizes quality foreign films on the one hand and cannibalizes them on the other.

THE FAST RUNNER <br>One of the great films that missed Chico theaters this year was the beautifully photographed Inuit fable, The Fast Runner, starring Sylvia Ivalu as Atuat and hailed universally as a triumph of storytelling.

Steven Soderbergh’s version of Solaris is the least indecent of the recent remakes, but apparently even its streamlined integrity is too much for American movie audiences, who prefer the confectionery sentiments of Maid in Manhattan. The Criterion DVD of Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972) is by far the more compelling and substantial event, but the celebrity-happy mindset of the national media requires that the new Americanized version be given the spotlight and the cultural cachet.

The narcissistic provincialism of contemporary American culture manifests itself both in its disdain for the quality products of other cultures and in its infatuation with its own overpriced trash. The result just may be a self-blinding chauvinism that worships only the bank accounts of the movie moguls and CEOs who make the greatest monuments to crassness.

With dark thoughts like that in mind, a mere citizen moviegoer might feel moved to construct a Top 10 of a different sort:

1. Waking Life—a lot of what American film should be but isn’t: thoughtful, playful, full of tender artifice, an open embrace for characters and audience alike, a waking dream with the pathos of honest self-reflection.

2. The Lady and the Duke—innovative use of digital imagery on behalf of an absolutely unique and quietly astonishing period piece, with Rohmerian conversations in a mode at once archaic and contemporary.

3. Beau Travail—Billy Budd redrawn as a Foreign Legion story; the Foreign Legion story redrawn as pagan ritual—for post-modern primitivists?

4. The Wind Will Carry Us—City guy keeps driving his Land Rover to the top of the hill so he can use his cell phone. We get it, but does he?

5. Godard Godard Godard—Find a new one (For Ever Mozart), find an old one (Alphaville, Pierrot le Fou, Weekend): a sure-fire cure for the miseries of what William Burroughs called “watching the same old blue movie over and over.”

6. Manoel de Oliveira—you probably can’t find I’m Going Home or Journey to the Beginning of the World in Chico, but you can rent The Convent, and Abraham’s Valley may be available soon. His simplicity is rewarding in ways that make you realize how oppressive the sensory overload of most movies is.

LOVELY AND TALENTED<br>Actress Catherine Keener continued her hot streak as one of the most talented female actresses in America with her performance as a bored and frantic amateur artist in Lovely and Amazing—available in Chico on video and DVD.

7. Solaris (1972) on DVD—watch the whole thing, and all the extras. Not as rebuke to the Soderbergh version, but rather as an introduction to a magisterial alternative.

8. Y Tu Mamá También—These days, the best in artful entertainment comes not from Hollywood, but from Mexico (see also: Amores Perros).

9. Immemory—Chris Marker’s CD-ROM is multifaceted modernist cinema by other means.

10. The Biographical Dictionary of Film, Critic’s Choice, and The A-List: Read a book and start to build your own pantheon.

Other thoughts on the year in movies:

Best New Films That Didn’t Make It to Chico in Any Form: the Canadian Inuit epic The Fast Runner and six films from France—I’m Going Home, Read My Lips, Time Out, 8 Women, Merci Pour le Chocolat and In Praise of Love.

Haven’t Seen ’em, Hope They Get Here: Mostly Martha (Germany), Talk to Her (Spain), Safe Conduct (France), Children of the Century (France), Bowling for Columbine (USA), Running With George (USA), The Russian Ark (Russia), Blackboards (Iran/Afghanistan), The Way We Laughed (Italy), The River (Taiwan), The Sins of Padre Amaro (Mexico); The Man Without a Country (Finland).

Best Documentaries: Rivers and Tides, The Gleaners and I with sequel on DVD, Señorita Extravigada, Teatro (Wim Wenders and Willie Nelson), Being Mick (Jagger, that is).

Best Westerns: Skinwalkers, The Fast Runner.

SOLARIS POWER <br>Although Steven Soderbergh’s remake of Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 original is not as good as the original, it’s still the best remake of 2002, our critic says. Shown here: George Clooney and Natascha McElhone.

Guilty Pleasures: Brotherhood of the Wolf, Transporter, Tuxedo.

Best Remake: Solaris.

Worst Remake: Unfaithful.

Sleaziest Remake: Insomnia.

Cinephiles’ Delight: the “Holy Moment” in Waking Life. Honorable mention: The Trouble With Charlie, CQ, Festival in Cannes.

Best DVD specials: Criterion Collection’s restoration of three René Clair classics from the early 1930s: Le Million, A Nous La Liberté, Under the Roofs of Paris; Criterion’s two-disc re-release of Tarkovsky’s Stalker and his 1972 version of Solaris; three Rivette films (Wuthering Heights, Secret Defense, Gang of Four) from Image Entertainment; three Czech classics (Daisies, The Joke, Lemonade Joe) from Facets Multimedia.

Best video premieres: Godard’s Keep Your Right Up! (Facets), Resnais’ Stavisky (Image Entertainment), Amos Gitai’s Kippur (Kino International), the uncut Saragossa Manuscript (Image Entertainment).

Best Performances (individual): Catherine Deneuve in Place Vendôme: Lena Endre in Faithless; Isabelle Huppert in The Piano Teacher, Merci Pour le Chocolat, and 8 Women; Denis Lavant in Beau Travail; Alan Arkin in 13 Conversations about One Thing; Edie Falco in Sunshine State; Jennifer Anniston in The Good Girl; Catherine Keener in Lovely and Amazing.

Best Performances (ensemble): The Royal Tenenbaums, Y Tu Mamá También, Sunshine State, 8 Women, La Buche.

Best Cameo: Jean-Pierre Leaud in What Time Is It There?

Best Films About the Way We Live Now: Time Out, Read My Lips, The Gleaners and I, The Wind Will Carry Us, Code Unknown, Sunshine State, Waking Life.

Best Film Book: the new edition of David Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary of Film.