PRINT December 2008


James Quandt


1 and 2 Itinéraire de Jean Bricard (Jean-Marie Straub & Danièle Huillet) and Le Genou d’Artémide (Jean-Marie Straub) The high point of Cannes and of the year, Jean-Marie Straub’s twin farewells—to a past in which political resistance was a matter of life and death, to his beloved partner and codirector Danièle Huillet—employ exquisite images of nature (the Loire shot in precise black-and-white, a sunlit Italian grove in refulgent color), and, more daringly, in the case of Le Genou, a dark screen accompanied by Mahler’s Abschied, to achieve rending nobility.

3 The Headless Woman (Lucrecia Martel) Martel returns to her terrain of oblique unease among the rural bourgeoisie of Argentina in a trance film that leaves its audience as unmoored as its sleepwalking heroine.

4 Liverpool (Lisandro Alonso) One expects formal precision from Alonso, here completing his trilogy about intractable men journeying solo through hinterland, but the film’s emotional amplitude is new and welcome.

5 Tony Manero (Pablo Larraín) Forget Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler (Wallace Beery in a peroxide mullet) actor Alfredo Castro gives the year’s male performance as a Travolta-obsessed psycho, fixated on Saturday Night Fever but living out Vengeance Is Mine in Pinochet’s Chile. Though director Pablo Larraín leans a little heavily on his political metaphors and cinematic influences (Taxi Driver, The Conformist), the film attains formidable dank intensity.

6 24 City (Jia Zhang-ke) The extent of Jia’s nostalgia for pre–free market China becomes troublingly apparent in his latest bardic contemplation of the country’s recent past. As in his Still Life, Jia recounts the erasure of a symbolic locale—a former Communist aeronautics and munitions plant now being demolished to make way for luxury apartments—to signify the official expunging of history.

7 United Red Army (Koji Wakamatsu) In a resurgence of Japanese cinema, Wakamatsu’s ferocious three-hour chronicle of Maoist student cadres in the 1960s vies with Hirokazu Kore-eda’s lovely home drama, Still Walking, for best in show. As a firsthand account of leftist infighting and auto-immolation, United Red Army readily joins Oshima’s Night and Fog in Japan and Godard’s La Chinoise.

8 Wonderful Town (Aditya Assarat) During a respite for Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand provided the year’s best feature-fiction debut, Assarat’s melancholy portrait of a young architect from Bangkok supervising reconstruction in a tsunami-afflicted town where occluded anguish quickly turns murderous.

9 Cleopatra (Júlio Bressane) Werner Schroeter’s gorgeous but oddly impersonal requiem, Nuit de Chien, aside, Bressane’s ultranutty vision of the Egyptian queen was the film maudit of 2008. It succumbs to tropicalist Fellinism, but its early sequences achieve a sensuality and stylized grandeur unseen since Schroeter’s Rose King.

10 Summer Hours (Olivier Assayas) After his unconvincing forays into genre cinema, Assayas reverts, perhaps too consciously, to familiar terroir, turning potential cliché and self-reference (the coda recalls his 1994 L’Eau froide) into a profound, plaintive statement about the traces we leave in the world.

James Quandt organized the traveling retrospective “In the Realm of Oshima,” currently on view (through December 9) at Cinematheque Ontario in Toronto, where he is senior programmer.