in Frieze | 01 JAN 07
Featured in
Issue 104

Looking Back: Film

Looking back over a year of new cinema from Argentina, Australia, Belgium, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Mali, Morocco, Romania, Spain, Taiwan, Thailand, Turkey, the USA and the UK

in Frieze | 01 JAN 07

Was 2006 the year Hollywood got serious with us? You know, grown-up: Munich, World Trade Center, Good Night, and Good Luck, Syriana, Capote … and let’s not forget Marie Antoinette. But there’s the rub. A couple of these films displayed nous, but, in truth, ‘grown-up’ is no longer what most American filmmakers are about. Sofia Coppola’s hymn to a thoroughly modern Marie – hot for shopping, gossip and sexual satisfaction – is an infantile take on history and politics, one that ultimately becomes offensive as the Versailles party girl finds within herself enough true-blue blood to silence and dismiss the baying proles – urgh! get ’em off screen – with a single regal bow of her elegantly curved neck. Of recent American movies, Marie Antoinette is the most conspicuously inadequate as a response to real life’s messy complexity. American cinema is mostly about genre, pure and simple. John Turturro’s Rabelaisian musical, Romance and Cigarettes, mixed and mismatched conventions, but was pretty much a one-off – and underrated, to boot. Otherwise, we had Miami Vice, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, Flags of Our Fathers and The New World. I mention these four films of rare value in ascending order of quality. Michael Mann disappointed some by not rehashing the TV series of Miami Vice, but the noir-dark result displayed consummate skill and (unlike Martin Scorsese’s The Departed) real personal engagement. Tommy Lee Jones’ modern Western, The Three Burials ..., transcended genre expectations by foregoing the Peckinpah bloodbath it had seemingly promised, while Clint Eastwood’s timely Iwo Jima film, Flags of Our Fathers – which paid tribute to soldierly sacrifice while exposing political deceit and the citizenry’s shallow sentimentality – typically deployed understatement to marvellously moving effect. Meanwhile, Terrence Malick’s pre-Western Pocahontas epic, The New World, had more to do with Richard Wagner, Martin Heidegger, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman than with John Ford or Sergio Leone. Even more than Lodge Kerrigan’s determinedly indie Keane – which felt almost European – The New World was the most audacious, exhilarating and, well, grown-up American release of the year.

Much was made of Britain’s two Cannes prizewinners. The Wind That Shakes the Barley was a powerful offering from Ken Loach, although ­cinematically­ it could have been made three decades ago. Andrea Arnold’s Red Road, however, bodes well. Her feature début, it shows her ability to treat difficult material – dangerous sex, a desire for vengeance – without lapsing into sensationalist cliché; only the weakly ‘redemptive ending’ rings false. Likewise impressive were Michael Winterbottom’s A Cock and Bull Story, which almost succeeded in achieving the impossible as a faithful-in-spirit but faintly self-satisfied adaptation of Laurence Sterne’s comic novel Tristram Shandy (1759-67), and Stephen Frears’ The Queen, a very astute comedy of modern royal and political manners blessed with an extraordinary performance by Helen Mirren.

Too many of the Asian movies released were flashy exercises in horror and violence; an exception was the exquisitely beautiful Three Times, by Taiwan’s Hsiao-Hsien Hou. A triptych of poignant love stories starring the same actors but set variously in 1911, 1966 and 2005, it examines how some things have changed with time while others have remained the same. The gentle pace and delicate tone require patience, although the three different styles used – reflecting technical shifts in the director’s own career – make it Hou’s most accessible film in ages.

Many of the finest films of the year were European. France provided several superior movies – including Dominik Moll’s Lemming and Denis Dercourt’s The Page-Turner, both painterly and deeply unsettling – but no masterpieces save for Hidden, by Austria’s Michael Haneke. The film, set mainly in Paris and inspired in part by a horrendous but hushed-up act perpetrated by the French government in the 1960s, also boasts fine French actors (it was written for and around Daniel Auteuil’s screen persona), yet its tale of shame, inequality and self-delusion is applicable to most societies. The same is true of The Child – another superb fable of universal relevance set very specifically in Seraing, directed by Belgium’s dependable Dardenne brothers – and The Death of Mr Lazarescu, the second feature from Romania’s Cristi Puiu. The bleak, sardonic but deeply compassionate account of an elderly man ferried from hospital to unwelcoming hospital in an ambulance transcends its satirical depiction of an under-resourced health system to become one of those very rare films that get to grips with the inevitability of death and fragility of life. Puiu is someone to watch closely.

Also dealing with death, Volver found Pedro Almodóvar on form, showing that the darkest topics – grief, guilt, sexual abuse, loneliness, fear, illness – can, in the right hands, make for a film that’s not only sensitive and moving but also lively and funny. The first half feels enjoyable if faintly over-familiar; then Penélope Cruz sings her song and everything shifts into a fresh register, more complex and resonant, with Almodóvar teasing out the ironic consequences of the narrative elements he’d deftly put in place in that first hour. No movie, surely, was more justifiably confident of its ability to entertain.

In 2007 watch out for gems from the late Robert Altman (Prairie Home Companion), Mali’s Abderrahmane Sissako (Bamako), Thailand’s Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Syndromes and a Century), Argentina’s Pablo Trapero (Born and Bred), Turkey’s Nuri Bilge Ceylan (Climates), the Czech Republic’s Jan Svankmajer (Lunacy), Germany’s Valeska Grisebach (Longing), Australia’s Rolf de Heer (Ten Canoes) and the UK’s Shane Meadows (This Is England). To quote the title of a terrific new film by Morocco’s Faouzi Bensaïdi (and let’s hope it finds a UK distributor) – What a Wonderful World.