Editor’s note: This series was held 4 April to 24 April 2007 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
The year-end best list is the great evil temptress of film criticism. It invites writers to indulge their know-it-all-ism while facing whirlpools of group-think, marketing, and much-buzzed subject matters. Every year, I give in to the urge, draw up platitudes, and three months later wonder what the hell I was thinking. BAMcinématek’s Best of 2006 series served as a corrective to the clutter, highlighting the unrecognized or (at the time) undistributed.
The entries were picked from indieWIRE’s Critics’ Poll which, combined with the personalities and tastes of the BAM staff and co-curator and Poll manager Dennis Lim, resulted in a diverse mix. The series included two films by American indie Robinson Dervor, a broad satire of Italian politics by Nanni Moretti, Manoel de Oliveira’s imagined postscript to Buñuel’s Belle de Jour, and a mini-retrospective of Hong Sang-soo’s films since his Woman is the Future of Man career pivot. If there was any through-line, it was “alienation,” an admittedly overworked topic given verve here by original storytelling.
Dervor’s films were, for me, the great discovery of the series. Police Beat is an abstract procedural and existential love story. Senegalese immigrant policeman Z (Pape Sidy Niang) tries to wrangle the chaos of human emotions through the order of his job, gliding around the outskirts of Seattle. Shot in liquidy blue-green tones that appear both free-flowing and suffocating, he contemplates his relationship with an absent girlfriend in voiceover, his investigations of cases (all reconstructed from actual police reports) providing mini-dramas concerning his own questions about commitment and relationships. He files them under penal codes that function as thematic markers: threat, trespassing, prowler, domestic disturbance, aggravated assault. The entire movie, though humorous and hopeful, feels drugged, the characters desperately displaced and struggling for connection.
Dervor’s Zoo (which now has a distributor) has garnered attention for its source (the tabloid story about a Seattle man who died of internal bleeding after having sex with a horse), but it’s determinedly unsensational. The look recalls Errol Morris’ documentaries, primarily The Thin Blue Line, comprised of carefully composed reenactments, cuts from wide shots to close-ups, sharp lighting contrasts, and a menacing floating feeling reinforced by a pulsing electronic and classical score. Dervor’s impassive treatment of the case is disturbing not for making bestiality sympathetic, but for attempting to make sense of it and failing. Zoo is really about the limits of interactions, whether with animals or other people. As the veterinarian who seized the horse says, “I’m just on the edge of being able to understand it.”
Day Night Day Night and Time to Leave also present difficult protagonists. In Day Night, director Julia Loktev adopts the handheld realist style of the Dardenne brothers to follow a young woman (Luisa Williams) as she prepares to blow herself up in Times Square. The film seems a prelude to a discussion, prompting numerous questions. As the bomber provides no ideological or personal motivation, we wonder about her apparent sweetness. Is she acting? Is she endearing or absurd? I thought the film was compelling, but too enigmatic, with a slightly unbelievable ending.
François Ozon’s Time to Leave (Le temps qui reste), released briefly in the U.S. last summer, tracks the final months of self-centered fashion photographer Romain (Melvin Poupon, in a riveting performance) with terminal cancer. He decides not to tell his family, except his simpatico grandma (Catherine Deneuve), cruelly leaving them to deal with the shock after his passing. The film makes the unsentimental case for his right to die in isolation, treasuring his last glimpse of nature and its fleeting loves. Ozon frequently favors ostentatious visuals, but here the frame is crisp and ordered, so that key images are unexpectedly gut-wrenching, as when a setting sun appears to kiss Romain’s dying lips. A wonderfully understated melodrama, it manages to be moving and sympathetic while avoiding the weepie clichés.
Many of the films in this series were shot on video. And most, like Dervor and Loktev’s, embrace video’s visual imperfections. In Colossal Youth (Juventude Em Marcha), Portuguese director Pedro Costra mixes documentary-style improvised scenes, scripted scenes with professional and non-actors, and a gritty look that references mid-century Hollywood and Western European art from the Renaissance to Postmodernism, to create a daunting vision of slum life in Lisbon. (It’s a sort-of sequel to In Vanda’s Room, a documentary about a group of junkies in the same ghetto.)
Vanda appears again in this film, as Ventura, a child living amid crumbling buildings, about to be torn down to make way for housing projects. In single shot scenes, the interiors take on hallucinatory perspectives, with sets that recall The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, smudged black edges from Goya paintings, and the studied stillness, grayness, and common iconography of Vermeer. When a brief respite to nature is framed like an Impressionistic pastoral, Costra seems to be mocking Western European ideals of beauty. Ventura is given a room in one of the new buildings, insisting on one large enough for his family. The housing agent asks, “How many children do you have?” He responds, “I don’t know yet.” His “children” are either hallucinations or a euphemism for the lost and confused souls (almost everyone speaks in long monologues, speaking to but not with one another) he wants to bring together. It’s completely depressing, bordering on nihilistic.
Woman on the Beach
In Sang-soo’s latest film, Woman on the Beach (Haebyonui yoin), a manipulative director named Kim (Seung-woo Kim) explains his latest script titled “About Miracles.” He says its goal is to unravel the secret of coincidence, that “There’s a very thin string that links everything.” He claims to have discovered a triangle-shaped diagram that demonstrates the “repeating images imprinted on us by others,” and a more complex, unnamable shape on top of it that represents the more complicated, unfathomable “whole.”
Kim is a director and a fool, Sang-soo’s depiction of his striving is at once cold and tender. The character’s ideas reference the construction behind Sang-soo’s films, but I also found a parallel in the effect of watching the Best of 2006 series. It followed strains of thoughts in individual movies, picked up by other films, turning on oblique paths that formed an amorphous and impressive shape, delicately held together by differences and connections between art and reality.