by Lucius Shepard
March 1, 2006
The Return — from a first-time Russian director, Andrei Zvyagintsev, made for less than five hundred thousand dollars, The Return is what I, in my less editorial moments, am likely to call "a bloody effing masterpiece." A film that harks back to Polanski's Knife in the Water and Charles Laughton's Night of the Hunter, and has suggestions of allegory and religious parable, it relates the story of two Russian boys, Andrei and Vanya, who live with their mother on the shores of a lake. One day, when they return home, they find their father, missing for twelve years, asleep in their mother's bed. The next day, he takes them on a prolonged "fishing trip," doling out brutal lessons in tough love along the way. The ominous mood builds and builds, aided by the gorgeous yet stark cinematography and the achingly empty Russian landscape, leading to a wholly unexpected climax, one that seems, in retrospect, absolutely right.
Caché — Michael Haneke's Caché is, among other things, a meditation on how we form memories, and the ways in which a movie is basically an empty screen upon which we project our emotions, particularly those relating to paranoia, our inmost desires and secret fears. Secondarily, it concerns the French political adventure in Algeria, how it lingers in the French consciousness, and presents us with a lens through which we can examine racism and history, how they are ground together into a single medium. Talk-show host Georges (Daniel Auteuil) and his wife Anne (Juliette Binoche) discover a videotape on their front step, followed by others wrapped in children's drawings, suggesting that their bourgeoise paradise is under surveillance by someone. That this someone is an enemy can be assumed—the act of being watched without consent is a serious form of aggression. Haneke has made a thriller that you don't have to "get" to understand—you feel it along your nerves.
Keane — Centered by Damian Lewis' remarkable performance, Lodge Kerrigan's (Clean, Shaven and Claire Dolan) Keane, is hands down the best American picture of last year. Playing the title role of William Keane, Lewis provides us with the perspective of a sad, demented soul who one year earlier lost his six-year-old daughter in New York's Port Authority and has returned now to search for her. It's a matter of supposition whether or not the abduction ever actually occurred, and when a single mother and her daughter cross Keane's path, we wonder if he will harm them or simply use them to slip into a pretense of normalcy. A lesser director might have turned this into a love story or a tale of redemption, but Kerrigan never strays down ClichÉ Boulevard, and we watch Keane negotiating the no man's land that lies between psychosis and reason, hurrying after something that might be his life, but may be his death. A beautifully intelligent film that's never pedantic, never condescending, never less than true.
Nobody Knows — Hirokazu Kore-eda's docudrama is based on the story of four children abandoned by their mother. Akira (Yuya Yagira) is the oldest son of a fatherless family, responsible beyond his years. After helping smuggle to his two younger sisters and younger brother into their new apartment, he settles into a familiar routine, shopping, cooking, keeping his siblings in order and struggling through homework he has set himself because neither he nor the others have ever been allowed to go to school. Out of the four of them he's the only one really even allowed to leave the house, and therefore the only one with even a remotely normal understanding of the outside world. While his mother Keiko, little more than a child herself, leaves her family to fend for itself in increasingly lengthy intervals, it becomes clear that Akira is the one keeping the children together. Keiko's carefree actions, her youthful looks and sweet, childish demeanor make it hard to believe she has ever been old enough to support and care for four children on her own. Eventually to bear the pressures, Akira stops functioning as a father and reverts to being a twelve-year-old.
Kore-eda's camera is intimate, but never intrusive, and he manages to extract astonishing performances from his child actors. A great film that is less about children than what happens when people unable to conform to the world's rules make up their own.
Head On — Not to be confused with the Australian movie of the same name, Fatih Akin's film is . . . Well, despite it being one of my favorite films, I don't have much to say about it. It's a punk-rock song, a full-tilt apocalyptic boogie, about a Turkish girl (Sibel Kikilli) in Germany, determined to live a hedonistic life in the face of her family's strict fundamentalism, who makes a marriage of convenience to allow her to do just that. Kinetic, compulsive, and hits you like . . .like ramming your car into a wall (see the movie).
Old Boy — Maybe the best melodrama ever.
40 Shades of Blue — Two of the best performances of the year, Rip Torn as a legendary rock producer, and Dina Korzun as his Russian lover, highlight Ira Sach's broken love story set in Memphis.
Last Days — Gus Van Sant's Kurt Cobain movie is a hell of a lot better than his Columbine movie and touches on real poetry.
2046 — Finally, a Wang Kar Wai movie that fulfills his early promise. Maggie Cheung, Tony Leung, Zi Yi Zhang. Who could ask for anything more?
Turtles Can Fly — Bahman Ghobadi's evocation of the impending Iraq war through the eyes of orphans on the Kurdish-Turkish border should have snagged some press the way Kandahar did after 9/11—it says something about our fickleness that it didn't.
The Intruder — Claire Denis' second masterpiece (Beau Travail is the first) involves a man's search for his son. Full of Denis' usual lovely images, The Intruder spins out its story slowly, more slowly, and slower yet. Lots of people hate this movie, but not me.
3-Iron — A movie that struck me at first as being good, but grew in my mind to seem better than that. Ki Duk Kim's films are respectful of the genres they reinvent—but he gives himself room to spin them into unrecognizable complexities and innovations. 3-Iron is a love story where the leads never speak to one another. It's also a beautifully observed social satire. Actually, it defies description, existing in the kind of universe a child would create.
I also liked The World, The Consequences of Love, Tropical Malady, Save the Green Planet, Junebug, The Best of Youth, Tourist Class, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, Kings and Queens, The Proposition, Innocence, Somersault, The Descent, Last Exit, Cookers, Crimen Ferpecto, and a whole host more.