Cream of the crop and why I continue to seek out films.
1. In the Mood for Love (2000) Wong Kar Wai [Hong Kong]
It was November of 2000 and I had just finished five weeks in SE Asia, landing in Hong Kong for some good R&R before heading to the Mainland to visit friends. Surprisingly, Wong Kar Wai's new film (released in HK in September, but yet to be released in the US) was hanging on in one theater. I caught the first show I could make it to with a Brit who I had met in the hostel where I was staying. I was completely intoxicated by the images and the music and the actors and all of its collective beauty and longing. And there was Mo-wan, played by Tony Leung, leaving secrets in the place I had just visited not two weeks before. The physicality and the loneliness of my travels made me completely susceptible to the emotional gravity of the film. This was cinema at its most seductive, using all of its sensual allure to pull me in. When the film ended, I lied to my new friend and said I had some errands to run. I headed off to get something to eat and then headed right back to the same theater to see In the Mood for Love again.
Screened: Hong Kong and eventually at the Uptown Theater
2. Pistol Opera (2001) Seijun Suzuki [Japan]
After 34 years of living in the legacy of the Japanese New Wave, Seijun Suzuki unfurls a chaos-ridden sequel to his seminal 1967 Branded to Kill. Irrepressible style and fleeting substance, Pistol Opera returns to the unbridled creativity that won Suzuki fame, but also blacklisted him from the studio system. At 78-years-old, Suzuki’s uninhibited return was long overdue, bursting back on the scene with primary color panache. The titular plot—the competitive hierarchy in the world of assassins—is no more relevant now than it was then, and its two hours of blissful self-referential pastiche is a free-association rollercoaster ride. The rough edges of his discordant 60s techniques have been filtered though 21st century gloss into a hallucinatory jazz explosion. After influencing an entire generation of ‘shock cinema’ filmmakers, Seijun Suzuki stands up and shows the kids what audacious is all about.
3. Eureka (2000) Shinji Aoyama [Japan]
When Eureka started popping up on 'best of 2001' lists, I did not hesitate to order the expensive DVD from Japan. Recently armed with a region free Cyberhome, the world was my oyster. And while spending 40 bucks on a three-and-a-half hour movie, sight unseen, might seem foolhardy, this was exactly why I had gotten a region free player. A hidden gem that is still unavailable in the US today, Eureka is one of the most powerful yet understated films ever made about emotional trauma.
Screened: DVD (This film screened at the Walker, but I was under the thumb of a second-shift job and hate the fact that I missed this on the big screen.)
4. Tropical Malady (2004) Apichatpong Weerasethakul [Thailand]
The mysteries of love are as powerful as the mysteries of cinema. In Tropical Malady, these two wonders walk hand in hand, and there is nothing else quite like it. After directing three divergent films—exquisite corpse documentary Mysterious Object at Noon, abstract melodrama Blissfully Yours, and transvestite action The Adventures of Iron Pussy—Apichatpong Weerasethakul finds his stride as he delves deep into his visual subconscious to pull out a singular love story. Full of heartaching sincerity, even in its darkest moments, the film bravely follows intuition down a narrative path and asks us to follow. Told in two distinct parts, Tropical Malady channels covert archetypes of relationships: a lyrical portrayal of a heart-thumping courtship influenced by Eros, and a more abstract account of the mysteries of carnal desire through the cynical eyes of Frued. Joining the two acts is a poetic interlude where the two lovers, Keng and Tong, share an intimate moment on a dark road and Tong walks off into the dark. Keng is left standing, alone and motionless. Is this the end? Or is this the beginning? Heartbreak? Or adoring consummation? The question only lingers for a moment until the scene cuts to a pop song that is no less rapturous that the smile on Keng’s face as he rides his motorcycle down the darkened road. This is the joy of falling in love, which, like the rest of the film, is selflessly shared with the audience. The sequence, tempered by Keng’s eventual plunge into the dark jungle, will stick with me forever.
Screened: MCAD (Walker Without Walls)
5. Japón (2002) Carlos Reygadas [Mexico]
Carlos Reygadas' first feature film is something of an esoteric masterpiece that fits his unusual circumstances. A lawyer by trade, Reygadas left his profession to pursue filmmaking because of the films of Andrei Tarkovsky. It is with this kind of unflappable seriousness that Reygadas approaches his first film. Shooting in 16mm cinemascope, Japón is a rigorous formal achievement that is full of salt of the earth heart and soul.
6. Werckmeister Harmonies (2000) Béla Tarr [Hungary]
Screened: DVD but eventually saw it projected at the Walker during a Tarr retrospective.
7. Millennium Mambo (2001) Hou Hsiao Hsien [Taiwan]
Screened: Metro State (Asian Media Access)
8. La Ciénaga (2001) Lucrecia Martel [Argentina]
9. Still Life (2006) Jia Zhang Ke [China]
10. INLAND EMPIRE (2006) David Lynch [USA]
Right around the time David Lynch released INLAND EMPIRE, he also published a book entitled Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness, and Creativity. Part memoir and part memento, the book is a thoughtful testament to Lynch’s commitment to expanding his consciousness as an artist. Within the ocean of pure consciousness, Lynch is not interested in the small fish on the surface, but instead is willing to patiently dive for the larger ones dwelling far below the surface. In his own words: “Down deep, the fish are more powerful and more pure. They’re huge and abstract. And they’re more beautiful.” If that isn’t a summation of INLAND EMPIRE, I don’t know what is. Like the mysterious photos of life at the bottom of the Marianas Trench, INLAND EMPIRE is a strange creature that engenders equal parts fear and fascination. But Lynch is also implicit in its demand that the audience dive a little deeper with him and allow the images and scenarios to work beyond what is analytical. It moves nonlinearly and each successive scene opens a new door, unlocks a new mystery. The first two times I saw the film, when I got to the end, I couldn’t remember, specifically, how the film began. Like visual hypnosis, the film put me in a continuous hallucinatory state of amnesia: each sequence propelled me in a different direction, sporadically catching narrative threads when they appear. Bunnies, Poles and Hollywood is only the tip of the everything-is-connected iceberg. INLAND EMPIRE started as a fourteen-page monologue that Lynch gave to Laura Dern that they subsequently shot in a 27-minute take as an “experiment for the Internet.” Built upon Lynch’s creative intuition and anchored by Dern’s unbelievable acting, INLAND EMPIRE is teeming with dark ambiguities and beautiful mysteries. Starting from the same platform as every other director, David Lynch transforms baseline entertainment into a sublime adventure that is hard enough to wrap you head around, let alone words.
Screened: Oak Street Cinema (three times)
11. What Time is it There? (2001) Tsai Ming Liang [Taiwan]
Screened: Oak Street Cinema
12. Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002) Park Chan-wook [South Korea]
13. The Saddest Music in the World (2003) Guy Maddin [Canada]
Screened: Uptown Theater
14. Syndromes and a Century (2006) Apichatpong Weerasethakul [Thailand]
15. Graveyard of Honor (2002) Takashi Miike [Japan]
An unbelievable turn for Japan's man of shock and silliness, Graveyard of Honor is a somber, hard-hearted action drama that just leaves you stunned.
Screened: DVD (I have dreams of movies like this playing in theaters...)
16. Kairo (2001) Kiyoshi Kurosawa [Japan]
(I'm sticking with the Japanese name for fear someone confuse this with the crappy US remake, Pulse.) Leave it to a straight-to-video genre filmmaker with a sociology degree in his hip pocket to create one of the most potent horror films of the decade. Barely nine years have past, and the moment that Kairo proposes—a fateful teetering between technophobia and technophilia—has come and gone, making the metaphors all the more vivid. Praying on our existential fears, Kiyoshi Kurosawa throws us into a voluntary apocalypse where the population is slowly absorbed into the space occupied by white noise. Cause-and-effect rationality take a back seat to lingering ambiguity that is only perpetuated by the protagonists’ general apathy for their fateful doom. Transforming Tokyo into an otherworldly planet, subtle atmospheric effects permeate the film. The air, dark and foreboding, is filled with the particles of past human existence and unsuccessful souls trapped in purgatory. Whether it is the shocking one-shot suicide jump or the eerie confrontational dancing apparition, Kurosawa peppers his film with understated menaces and sublime mediocrity for a one-of-a-kind psychological masterpiece.
17. The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (2005) Cristi Puiu [Romania]
Screened: The Parkway (Before the Parkway was cleaned up! Mold spores and all.)
18. Old Joy (2006) Kelly Reichardt [USA]
Screened: Oak Street Cinema (Sound Unseen)
19. Cache (2005) Michael Haneke [France]
Screened: Edina Cinema