In a kind of sad slow year for vibrant independent films, I managed to plow through enough crud to find a few solid ones. The gap between the the first few films and the rest is significant, but they are all pretty good- especially if saved for a last ditch video selection.
- The Ice Storm (Dir. Ang Lee)
“The Ice Storm” is a beautiful scathing slice carved out of a cold Connecticut weekend in 1973 which has been transformed triumphantly from novel to film by of all people Taiwanese auteur Ang Lee. As the story of affluence and apathy collide with the spill over of more liberal sexual mores carried over from 60’s, we get a chance to look into the psyche’s of the parents, children and adolescents who walked through this vividly arti/superficial world. As both parents and children couple up with their neighbors a storm races through the wealthy Connecticut suburb setting in motion the emergence of many necessary truths.
- LA Confidential (Dir. Curtis Hanson)
Once again a novel by James Ellroy has made for a deliciously lyrical and entertaining film. It might be easy to accuse director Curtis Hanson of merely executing a lay-up with this film, after all equipped with a novel by Ellroy and cast featuring DeVito, Spacey, Bassinger, it would have been hard to botch this one. But look at other star studded films like “The Edge,” written by David Mamet and starring Alec Baldwin and Anthony Hopkins, and “Mad Dog” with Dustin Hoffman and John Travolta, that bombed because of hapless execution. What Hansen does to make “LA Confidential” fly as high as it does is cast two relative unknowns, Guy Pierce and , to play the films most interesting characters. The seedy Los Angeles underbelly is seemlessly depicted and the story is both complicated and accessible making qualifying it as this year’s best Hollywood film.
- Deconstructing Harry (Dir. Woody Allen)
This is easily Woody Allen at his most agitated. Falling just short of dramatic masterpieces like “Annie Hall” or “Manhattan” or comedic brilliance like “Sleepers,” “Deconstructing Harry” combines the mayhem and energy of both styles while providing him a vehicle to address the media that has been chewing him out for years. Although many will no doubt call him a racist, sexist pig after seeing this it’s hard to call someone who hates everyone, including himself, either of those things. Harry’s literal/ary trip to hell and back is a voyage worth repeating, and one of the best films he has made in years.
- The Wings of the Dove (Dir. Iain Softley)
For the most part I’m really sick of period pieces- but films that are able to throw new twists on this exploited genre deserve more credit than they are currently given (Angels & Insects the best most recent example). “The Wings of the Dove” is a lushly photographed, artfully told depiction of the Henry James classic. Helena Bonham Carter has never looked so extraordinary- and naked, “Priest’s” Linus Roache emerges as a cleaner more lovable Tim Roth, and “Spittfire Grill’s” Alison Elliot is also a sexy convincing number. The location shots of England and Venice are lushly photographed, and within this beautiful space we witness one of the most compelling romantic triangles in a long time. Director Iain Softley sheds a younger, much less stodgy light on the period piece and in so doing the film going public justice.
- The Tango Lesson (Dir. Sally Potter)
The Tango Lesson (Dir. Sally Potter) Riding on the heels of the beautifully arty 1993 film “Orlando,” Sally Potter’s new autobiographical about her love affair with Tango dancing, is an elegant surprisingly compelling film. Shot in a silvery black and white, except for dream sequences which are conversely vibrantly colorful, by veteran cinematographer Robby Muller (Breaking the Waves, Dead Man) the movie watches like a beautiful dream. As director/composer/actress Sally Potter falls for the Tango she also falls for her studly teacher Pablo Veron. In both dance and love, these two convey a profoundly believable love which perfectly mirrors the pace and intensity of the film. This is a wonderful film to fall in love with.
- Fast, Cheap and Out of Control (Dir. Errol Morris)
Once again Errol Morris (Thin Blue Line, A Brief History of Time) has managed to create a documentary so engaging and fluid that it’s easy to forget what exactly it is that you are watching. This time Morris interviews a topiary gardener, a mole rat specialist, a robotics scientist and a lion tamer in an effort to illuminate how similarly four disparate people can share a life philosophy. In exploring the notion of commitment and personal destiny, Morris is able to flush out a joy and professional relevance long since missing in our world. This film is an exploration of people, expertly told by four people who share an incredible joy of life.
- Temptress Moon (Dir. Chen Kaige)
The follow up to “Farewell My Concubine,” Temptress Moon is set in China in the 1920’s and traces the fall of the Pang dynasty – one whose taste for opium has finally brought them to its knees. The richly captured costumes and colors of the period help usher in a mood of hazy unsureity. Many of the relationships are purposefully ambiguous and in watching one of the last regimes before communism’s upsurgence seems to be a good metaphor for conveying the confusion and urgency of the period.
- The Myth of Fingerprints (Dir. Bart Freundlich)
Another in what has been a year of dysfunctional family movies, “Fingerprints” tells the story of a Thanksgiving at one of the Waspyest homes in New England. In one of the years most palatable casts starring Blythe Danner, Roy Scheider, Noah Wylie , James LeGros, and Julianne Moore emerge as a great portrayal of the pain that comes from being with the people who know you the best. There is nothing really groundbreaking about this film (The Gathering, Home For The Holidays, etc.) but what it does well is frame this story within a fresh new context with a beautiful cast of characters.
- Chasing Amy (Dir. Kevin Smith)
I really liked “Clerks-” in a clever, hip low-budget kind of way, but I didn’t really think it was much more than a charming fluke. “Mallrats,” his second film, I didn’t see and heard was aweful. “Chasing Amy” on the other hand is both cute and hip, but also incredibly well written and alarming accurate. Not all twenty-somethings are as smart as the kids in this movie, but the smart ones do speak like these people and do deal with similar issues in the way director Kevin Smith so eloquently instructs them to do. Conceptually the story of a guy trying to convince a lesbian to become heterosexual again seems like a sophmoric premise, but when executed in this wildly clever context this conversion becomes a wonderful contempory metaphor. Kevin Smith has offically arrived as one of the best young directors around.
- The Apostle (Dir. Robert Duval)
This is a great film, and like most great films it succeeds because it has both an interesting story and great acting. Duval paints the rural hinterlands of Louisiana and the working class poor of suburban Texas in such a crisp believable light that is almost like watching real life unfold. Once Duval flees the crime scene of his creation, leaving wife Farrah Fawcett and their two children behind with a body, the story transforms itself into an assortment of individual spiritual quests. Duval plays the southern preacher with fiendish accuracy, but it helps that he is supported by a cast equally up to the challenge. The melange of odd country bumpkins, including Billy Bob Thornton and Miranda Richardson, light up the screen with that same powerful energy. At times you feel uncertain about how you should be reacting to the characters, but it is within this unease that “The Apostle” lets you know just how good it is.
- Ulee’s Gold (Dir. Victor Nunez)
Not unlike ‘Eye of God’ this film explores another cross section of America’s rural fringe. In a small town community somewhere in the hinterland of southern Florida, Ulee (Peter Fonda) plays a widowed beekeeper with a son in prison, and two grandchildren to look after. Fonda’s “Ulee” is a softer, gentler Clint Eastwood type preoccupied with his work and too tired to be raising the two girls he has been left him to deal with. Ultimately the story becomes one of family loyalty and what kind of sacrifices people will make for one another.
- Eye of God (Dir. Tim Blake Nelson)
1997’s “Sling Blade”- a slow, eerie and impeccably acted and edited story about a murder in a small town in the midwest. But fortunately for us it is also about more than just death and murder. The story unfolds as the recently freed ex-con (Kevin Anderson) rolls into a small Oklahoma town to meet the woman, Ainsley (Martha Plimpton), that he has been corresponding with while in prison. The film opens by cutting to two policemen as they discover a teenage boy covered in blood and unable to speak. With such predictable elements in place it would seem that this film could be about as exciting as watching a toilet flush but it couldn’t be further from that. Clean, slick shots, and an interesting soundtrack kept a theater full of people watching until the last credit had rolled, despite the religious zealots picketing outside the theater.
- The Sweet Hereafter (Dir. Atom Egoyan)
Adapted from the novel by Russell Banks, “The Sweet Hereafter” captures the feelings of communal loss and despair better than almost any film I can remember. As a small Canadian community recovers from the death of fourteen children who died in a school bus accident, Egoyan deeply probes the various psyches of those affected by the tragedy. The frosty Canadian landscape feels reminiscent of the white wastelands of “Fargo,” but acts more to reflect the purity and clarity of human emotions. Cut between the present and the past, “The Sweet Hereafter” succeeds in illuminating its characters from two perspectives in an effort to enhance our overall understanding of the nature of grief.
The Daytrippers, Caught, In The Company Of Men, The Pillow Book, Broken English, All Over Me, House of Yes